Editor’s Note: This guest column by 11Alive’s Jeff Hullinger was originally posted to his Facebook page where his personal tribute to the late, great Dante Stephenson sparked quite a lot of reminiscence about the late Dante’s Down the Hatch restaurant in Buckhead. Originally opened in 1970, the iconic restaurant on Peachtree Road was a mainstay for fondue-lovers until it closed in 2013. Visitors will remember the iconic pirate ship and actual, live crocodile that called it home for all those years, and those lucky enough to have met Dante himself will likely resonate with Jeff’s moving recollection below. Thank you for sharing the memories with us, Jeff.
Dante Stephenson of Atlanta died this week.
His death didn’t make the local television news.
Another 84 year old man passes.
Rest in Peace.
Had Mr. Stephenson died 30 years ago in Atlanta, his death would have been front page in the AJC, all four local network affiliates would have sent reporters with sorrowful faces doing long pieces outside his fabled Buckhead restaurant.
Atlanta has changed.
Who eats expensive fondue on a wooden ship surrounded by a crocodile named Jerry, while a great jazz trio plays Cole Porter in 2020?
No one I know.
Dante’s Down The Hatch was an Atlanta state of mind, the ultimate Buckhead cool.
Impress a date, impress yourself, put on a Muse’s blazer and swagger in for your reservations.
36 years ago when I first arrived in Atlanta, my Denver television reporter girlfriend, Kim visited Georgia.
We were both 25.
She knew nothing about the city but wanted to visit Dante’s Down The Hatch.
“I’ve heard so much about it,” she gushed on the telephone.
Atlanta had been my home for one month.
We show up and Dante introduces himself, pipe, small mustache, coifed beard, nautical cap, jewelry, replete with stories of train cars and the romance of the rails.
He had taken a liking to Kim and sat at our table for more than an hour eyes fixed on my date.
Dante lived in a train car, traveled the world, spoke of the restaurant modeled after an 18th century sailing ship, a moat, wax figures, antique cars, church pews, and he was a navy seal.
Mr. Stephenson was a 1970’s Old Spice commercial come to life, a charming rogue.
I wrestled Kim away from Dante and I passed on the complimentary marshmallows and chocolate fondue reserved for VIP’s (or young female telegenic Denver reporters).
Over the years I returned to Dante’s but a much wiser man.
I sat close to my date and then my wife.
Sail on Dante.
– Jeff Hullinger