Dante’s last dance

Restaurateur and raconteur Dante Stephensen closed his doors this week after 43 years. This spring the Atlanta Journal-Constitution told his story in a Personal Journey feature. Read it online at


Procrastination rules my life. I file my taxes on April 15. I do my Christmas shopping on December 23. I get my emissions test done the day before my birthday. So it was fitting that the first time I ever went to Dante’s Down the Hatch was the very last day they served food.

The iconic Buckhead fondue restaurant closed to the public on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Dante’s opened one last time to welcome longtime customers and friends for a private dinner. I was lucky enough to snag an invite for this special event.

I’ve been to dozens of restaurant “grand openings. This was no grand opening. It was a grand closing. The room wasn’t filled with celebrities, CEOs and runway models. The room was filled with loving, grateful, loyal customers who for more than four decades had come to this place to celebrate all of life’s great moments.

Dante’s moved to Buckhead from Underground Atlanta in 1981. As Buckhead became shinier and glitzier, Dante’s stayed the course. It didn’t chase food trends, didn’t cater to the “in” crowd. Dante’s wasn’t a place to be seen. It was a place to celebrate life with good food, good music and good friends.

The last fondue was served Wednesday night. It was served with laughter and, yes, tears.

“I was in tears, by myself,” owner Dante Stephensen said when I asked him about locking the doors for a final time. “It was not a good feeling.”

The grand finale was bittersweet for the octogenarian. Before the night ended, Stephensen got to spend a last glorious evening with friends and former employees.

“We had record crowds. A lot of people spoke. I spoke. It was very touching,” Stephensen said. “Everyone was very cordial and very friendly.”

The question everyone kept asking was, “What next?” Stephensen told me that he still has a lot of irons in the fire. He could build a place at another location. He could teach. He could travel. Anything is still possible.

As loyal patrons and former co-workers shared stories about their past experiences at their beloved establishment, Stephensen made his rounds, greeting the crowd who had come to pay their final respects. With an unmistakable laugh, a quick wit and perfect comic timing, Stephensen is the ultimate restaurateur. People came to see him as much as they did to eat fondue in a ship, see alligators or listen to live jazz.

Dante Stephensen was the attraction. For 43 years, he was why they came. And he was why he they came Wednesday night.