Only six days remain until Buckhead signature restaurant Dante’s Down the Hatch shuts its doors for good.
The closure, brought on by escalating property taxes, will leave a void for restaurant-goers who have ventured to Dante’s for the last 43 years for made-from-scratch fondue and theme park-style fun.
With the official last day of service Tuesday, Denise Gunderson of Sandy Springs last week made a last-minute reservation for her family of seven to celebrate her twin sons Jonah and Noah’s 14th birthdays.
“I was surprised we were able to get a reservation,” Gunderson said. “They said, ‘We can fit you in at 4:15.’ So I was like, ‘We’ll take it!’ I moved here in ’71 and I remember coming here as a child. We decided we really need to bring our kids here.”
While owner Dante Stephensen visited with the Gundersons as he typically does with almost every table, Denise’s husband Erik Gunderson asked whether he was really moving out.
“We’ve got no choice; we’ve sold the property,” Stephensen said before quickly turning to 14-year-old Sarah Gunderson to discuss the Chinese dumpling on her plate. “Once you try one, you will want more. That’s what my guess is.”
The original Dante’s opened in Underground Atlanta in 1970 and closed 11 years later, when Stephenson moved it to Buckhead. At the request of then-Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, Dante’s reopened in Underground Atlanta in 1989 and that location closed 10 years later.
The chaos of preparing to close the Peachtree Road location means maxed-out crowds every evening, leaving Stephensen little time to fret.
“I don’t think it’s going to feel real until the day after,” he said. “I’ve never been through something like this before. … I’m not looking forward to it.”
The former Navy Seal said he’s trained to cope in tough times, but he remains unhappy about having to leave because of skyrocketing taxes. Stephensen said Fulton County is looking to collect taxes on a potential 25- to 30-story building that ought to be on his land, which is sandwiched between several other high-rise structures.
“We’re the second-highest taxed piece of property in Buckhead per square foot,” he said. “I don’t blame the county for wanting more taxes. That’s their prerogative. I just think it’s unfair to take a place that’s been open 43 years — this place means a lot to a lot of families. And that I take personally.”
With the possibility of establishing another location still up in the air, a firm date to auction off his collection of pirate-themed paraphernalia and various life-sized historic figures has been set for Sept. 21. From the iconic, handcrafted ship to the scowling statue of Mark Twain, everything may be up for grabs if Stephensen does not find a new location among the handful he is considering.
“Every piece of stuff here has a story,” he said.
Stephensen said he’s also considering lecturing more frequently to students in Georgia State University’s hotel and hospitality program, where he has spoken to classes for many years, or taking time to travel the world.
Nancy Battaglia, a longtime friend and organizer of the Atlanta Ski Club reunion held last month to mark the club’s final get-together at Dante’s, said the loss will mark the end of a longstanding tradition as the club’s favorite event location and her own favorite place to get a Gold Cadillac — an ice cream drink with Galliano liqueur — that she said she plans to have at least two of before the doors are closed.
“It’s sad for those of us who have known Dante since 1968,” Battaglia said. “As you say, life goes on. But I don’t know that progress is always progressive.”
Information: (404) 266-1600 or www.dantesdownthehatch.com.