All good things must come to an end, the old saying goes, so it was with a heavy heart that we learned that Dante’s Down the Hatch will be closing its doors at the end of July 2013. One can understand why owner Dante Stephensen would decide to finally sell the property–he’s had a 42-year run living his dream and surely it’s time to allow him a comfortable retirement. In fact, it seems amazing that located on such prime real estate, Dante’s lasted as long as it did; it even survived a fire. What we can be thankful for is that at least, unlike so many Atlanta iconic restaurants from The Mansion (also designed by Dante; building now owned by SCAD) to Dailey’s, we have a chance to say good-bye.
I can remember the first time my dad took me to Dante’s as a child. How cool it was to step inside a coffin and descend even deeper into Underground Atlanta, the restaurant’s original location. Remember, that in the 1970s, Underground wasn’t an Epcotlike tiled shopping center. It was dark, lit only by gaslight, and one really felt transported into a bygone era of turn-of-the-century arcade machines, an old soda counter which even served Moxie, general shops full of those marvelous striped hard stick candies in every flavor you could imagine, a wax museum and a giant “Mighty Mortier” organ at the very end of the street. Its crown jewel was Dante’s, decorated to appear like a old sailing ship with a live jazz band performing and live crocodiles in the moat (you can see the graves of the original Throckmortons as you approach the current restaurant). Even the menu–fondue and cocktails in hurricane glasses–was all about sharing a true drinking and dining experience. It was the epitome of a ’70s theme restaurant, yes, but owner Dante, who was sure to stop by your table (he still does!), ensured it was never tacky or kitschy like so many of today’s attractions.
In 1981, when crime forced the old Underground to close, Dante moved the Hatch north to Buckhead, which was quickly taking over the mantle of Atlanta’s fine restaurant hub from a pre-Olympics increasingly daytime-only downtown. The relocation offered him the opportunity to redesign the restaurant in a larger space and make it even more magical, including outdoor space for his antique car collection. While he did reopen the original Dante’s from 1989-99 when Underground underwent its more mall-like rebirth, the Buckhead restaurant became the flagship and a chance for Dante to be a perfectionist in creating a truly special dining experience.
A while back, Dante gave ATLRetro a private tour of some of the many artifacts that decorate the Hatch, including stories about why they appealed to him and, how he found them–many come from antique auctions in Commerce, California, in the early ’80s. Sometimes the items trigger memories of his colorful life or observations on his passion for animals or the study of the world’s religions. I read a quote recently from author Theodora Goss that some people have adventures and other people are adventures. Dante surely is the latter. We hope you’ll enjoy this candid journey with Dante Stephenson to nine special places around the Hatch and also visit and support this Atlanta landmark treasure as many times as you can before it closes.
1) The Art of Stained Glass Windows and Feng Shui. “With all the bombing [in Europe in WWII], somebody was going around digging up scraps of glass. Take this piece that I just happened to buy. The person who picked up the pieces must have been an art historian because the eight pieces of glass that were placed into it come from different periods by different artists over about a 400-year period. I just thought it was interesting and had a very unique story. It would have been built overseas, probably in Britain because I picked it up at an auction in California in 1979 or ‘80 when I was buying the antiques for this place. I had drawn the plans, and I had a very talented builder. Very few builders could build something like this, so he was able to take the antiques and the structure and blend them together artistically. I mean, this place is feng shui all over the place, although at the time I didn’t know what the word meant.”
2. Faith and Fondue. ”There are two areas that I could cover in general. One is religion, and one is animals. I am a Biblical archaeologist. That’s a hobby of mine. My degrees are in archaeology, and I have grown to have a great interest in theology. In 2010, I was in Japan to satisfy another two hobbies—one is steam locomotives and I also visited some Shinto sites, which is one of the seven major religions of the world. The year before it was the Hindus and Sikhs in India, and before that the Buddhists in Tibet. In my quest to understand theology, I’m philosophically looking at all theologies. In the Hatch, I have artifacts from a number of different churches, primarily the Christian churches. I have a Lutheran pulpit behind me. I have a Presbyterian pulpit underneath one of the sails on the ship. I have Baptist pews, the red benches sitting over there. I have a Methodist communion rail up here. Those iron railings and banisters are all Church of England, which is our Episcopal church. On the lower deck, I have a Catholic confessional, and at the uppermost spot in the restaurant I have a Jewish Torah [guard-]rail.”
3. Sailing the Seas of History. “The sails on my ship came from the 1800s ship called the Barba Negra, in Savannah. It was a Norwegian capital ship that was brought over here by a Danish-German skipper at the request of Mills Lane, who founded the C&S Bank, to be parked in the harbor at historic Savannah. It’s not there any more because it sank, but the only tall ship captain that we had in the state of Georgia was Gerhard Schwisow. He not only provided us with the sails. He did all the rigging and all the rope-tying here.
4. A Grin-worthy Garage Sale Find. Talk about interesting artifacts which I found in someone’s garage sale, I have a broom over there. It’s for people with split personalities. The restaurant is full of ways in which you can laugh at yourself.
5. Yes, Virginia, the Crocodile is Real. Pinocchio the Crocodile got his name because of the length of his nose. I could talk a lot about the crocodiles. It could be a whole article. In the late ‘60s, our Atlanta zoo lost its accreditation. I was one of those that organized to save it. I was not a major donor—I had no money back then—but I was a major volunteer. We had to work at the zoo while they were hiring new people, and because one of my degrees is in geology, I got placed into the reptile department. It was the only rescue house of its kind, as far as I know, in the nation for confiscated Crocodilia. That’s crocodiles and caimans, not alligators.
I was seeing parents show up at the zoo with their three-foot semi-tame crocodile that they innocently bought at a pet store thinking it was a lizard for their child when it was about 8 inches long. Because of my degree in zoology which makes me almost a ranger, I decided to apply for a permit for my downtown club to receive the confiscated animals, because up until that time when they were brought to the zoo, they were ultimately put to sleep by Fish and Game. You can’t take an animal that’s been hand-raised like that and let it loose in the swamps. These came from South and Central America. These were not alligators, so the cost to send them down there and let them loose was ridiculous, too.
This one [Pinocchio] almost did harm to me, because we had to give him a shot and you wouldn’t think that an animal like that would have a sense of pain nerves as we do. But the three of us—a vet, my manager and I—we snuck up on him while he was sleeping. I wear a rubber suit because it’s waist-deep water. All of a sudden all three of us grabbed him at the same time because crocodiles are very strong. One holds the head, the other holds the body, and the other holds the tail. Then we put a towel over the head so that it’s dark to him, and then he calms down for the complete physical. Well, the vet had to give some intravenous fluids to this particular animal, and that was fine. But then he wanted to give him an injection of an antibiotic, and I’ve got to tell you when that needle went into[Pinocchio], he jolted to the point that all three of us were almost thrown. He’s only seven feet long. We held him, but he held his anger so that at the end of the event, the vet pulled away first, and then my manager pulled away. I’m holding him alone with the towel at one end and the tail at the other. As I removed the towel and stepped back, he went for me, and his head hit the pole because he was angry because I was part of this event that caused him to get pricked. That’s the only time in 40 years I’ve had a really close call. God’s on my side. She’s always been on my side.
6. The Witch in the Ladies Room. So let’s go to the bathroom. All my older four sisters said to me when I was much younger and thinking about building a unique place for people to relax that I had to protect the woman’s right to dine alone. So we do that here. If you come in alone or with a girlfriend that you hadn’t seen in years, you would particularly care if strangers came up and started to put the make on you because you’re talking to an old friend from way back. This is not a pick-up bar. So what happens is I’ll walk over to the table and just stand next to the guy. Nothing makes a guy madder than some other guy listening to his line, which he thinks is very unique but it isn’t. So finally the guy says “who are you?” “Oh, I’m Dante; I own the place. I see you’ve found my niece Louise.” He goes back to his table, and the ladies thank me.
Now let’s take that into the bathroom. I’m out at an antique auction in Commerce, California. I’d already drawn the plans and we’d already started the building. I’d gone to a restaurant with a group of guys who have chain restaurants, the Chart House, the Steak and Ale and so forth. I’m in the bathroom washing my hands after attending to business and looking in the mirror, as males like to do, wondering why they aren’t getting more dates. All of a sudden the lights go up over my head and a light comes on behind the mirror I’m looking into, and there sits a naked, elderly woman, topless with a crystal ball, winking at me. Well, I’ve had just enough wine that I believed it, so I’m hitting myself in the head as the light goes off and wondering if am I hallucinating. I go out of the door, come back in and the same thing happens again. I say, wow, what a neat idea. So I quickly run to the phone, wake up my builder and say “I know you’re on the lower bathroom level. Where are you in the structure?” “Well, I just finished closing in the mens room and the ladies room will be done tomorrow,” he says. I say, “don’t close in the last wall. I’ve got an idea.”
Have you been to the bathroom? Have you met Aunt Agatha? Well, she is a Madame Tussaud wax figure, ugly as sin. I had an actress do the first set of voiceovers, and then when [Agatha] got wet in our fire, I had it redone by one of my staff. There are seven speeches that she gives where she makes fun of the women. That has really become the most popular singular thing in the restaurant. People remember Aunt Agatha more than anything else. I have to be careful with children, though. Different personalities react differently to the witch, and if the child screams and is really scared, we let them use the handicapped bathroom obviously. That’s the only problem that comes up.
7. Some Famous Regulars. There used to be a [Josephine] Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Underground Atlanta in the 1970s. Then David Hawthorne, who had it, moved it to Helen, Georgia. He sold off some of his figures, and I bought some for here. I’ve got Einstein. I’ve got Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, General Hood who burned Atlanta, John Wilkes Booth and a pirate – who originally was the detective holding Oswald when Ruby shot him. People ask me why do I have so many wax figures. I say at every full moon, they wake up and clean.
8. The Basement Barbershop. The barbershop is interesting, too. It dates back to 1880-something from England. We had this room that’s the butt-end of the moat of the crocodile, and the bathroom is below us—an ideal place for a lounge. Well, I decided, well, wait a minute, I bought this barbershop—why don’t I use it for the reason why I bought it. I bought it with the thought of being part of a lounge. I remember haircuts when they were 17 cents. I’m that old.
9. Magnificent Murals. One of the beauties of this place is you can totally think you are taking off. You look at this wall here and you don’t see much, but if you sit on the steps there, it’s three-dimensional, and you’re looking down a street. If you stand at the top of the stairs looking over there, you’re looking at a building, but if you get up next to it, it’s a flat surface. So I have a muralist who is a bit of a magician who can draw things in three dimensions which at the right angle will take you to one place.
Let’s walk up there right quick. The diorama of the ship was built by a handicapped worker whose hobby and passion was to build ships from scratch without kits. My hobby is trains and I did the train-setting which is much less interesting but nevertheless a part of it. It was built from the plans I drew.
Located at 3380 Peachtree Street just south of Lenox Square, Dante’s Down the Hatch features live jazz six days a week (Tues-Sun) with acoustic guitar and vocalist on Mondays. But get there quick as the restaurant closes its doors forever on March 31, 2013. Reservations are recommended. Call 404-266-1600.