Dante Stephensen holds court during a June 6 farewell party at his long-time Buckhead restaurant, Dante’s Down the Hatch.
Dante Stephensen holds court during a June 6 farewell party at his long-time Buckhead restaurant, Dante’s Down the Hatch.

The path leading to the front door of Dante’s Down the Hatch left no room for doubt.

It’s closing. The sign on Peachtree Road said so. So did the two placards along the way to the hostess’ table. Dante Stephensen soon will soon shutter his beloved fondue restaurant.

Stephensen dragged things out as long as he could. He almost couldn’t part ways, announcing a March closing date and pushing it back further to the end of July. The website says Down the Hatch may reopen at a new, undetermined location.

On June 6, the Atlanta Ski Club said its goodbye. The old Buckhead club for mingling singles was one float in a parade of tributes to the 43-year-old institution.

Marianne Broadbear, a Ski Club member, ordered a drink at the bar, and said even though the restaurant will be gone, Stephensen will remain a part of her life.

“He’s as great as they get,” she said. “He’s fun as he can be. He’s a very giving, very caring sort of guy, and he loves what he does so much.”

The inside of Down the Hatch resembles a Huckleberry Finn cave adventure come to life. A sly, grinning wax figure of Mark Twain looking on from the corner provides a silent endorsement.

Stephensen left nothing in his restaurant to chance. He planned every inch of every detail of the décor. Even the bathrooms feature a replica of a barber shop, the shelves lined with colored glass bottles that glow in the soft light.

Stephensen’s restaurant mixes his shared interests of jazz, fondue and seafaring. The jagged seams of his eclectic juxtaposition of motifs blend in the shadows cast by the flickering candles. His showpiece, a stately pirate ship hovering in the twilight of the room, points toward its dock, the fully-stocked bar.

Stephensen said the ship helps his guests relax.

“When you see a ship facing out, that implies a feeling of escape,” he said. “That may have been in the back of my mind.”

As his self-imposed deadline approaches, Stephensen remains business as usual. For Stephensen this means being endearingly unusual.

Stephensen is an Illinois native who moved to Atlanta in 1967. He opened Dante’s at Underground Atlanta in 1970 and moved to Buckhead in 1981.

He’s a short man and yet somehow towers, particularly in the imaginations of the children who revere him. He favors suspenders. Uneven bolo strings hang from his neck. He talks with swooping gestures of his hands and sprinkles his speeches with enough profanity to justify his reputation as a sailor. A former Navy SEAL, actually.

Stephensen’s enduring gift lies in his mastery of conversation. His handshake meets people as they walk through the door. He gives just enough eye contact, listens sufficiently and smiles broadly.

He makes every person who walks over his threshold feel like the most important person in the room. Stephensen said it’s a talent that’s “in my blood,” and a benefit of receiving a Montessori Education as a youngster.

“I have grown up pretty independently self-confident for no particular reason,” he said. “I’m not a great athlete. I’m not good looking. I’m not tall. I didn’t get a lot of dates. It didn’t seem to bother me.”

Stephensen will close the Buckhead location because the property taxes are high and the restaurant’s owners received an irresistible offer from developers who want to turn it into apartment complexes.

It’s pretty much a guarantee that the apartments won’t be as interesting as Dante’s Down the Hatch.

Dan Whisenhunt wrote for Reporter Newspapers from 2011 - 2014. He is the founder and editor of Decaturish.com