A beloved nightclub was stranded at sea after its longtime location became the site of a proposed Beltline mixed-use project. But it has found a new home below Atlanta’s depths.

MJQ Concourse will move to Underground Atlanta by the end of 2023, taking over the dormant space of the original downtown location of pirate-themed nightclub Dante’s Down The Hatch.

The former watering hole known for its ship-shaped dance floor, live alligator moat, hot fondu and speakeasy-style hatch entryway hasn’t seen any late-night voyagers in nearly 25 years, but MJQ’s owners said they knew it was a lost treasure after one look.

“It can’t just be in any building,” MJQ co-owner Ryan Purcell told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s got to be a talking piece.”

MJQ is among the Ponce de Leon Avenue businesses forced to find new locations after Portman Holdings purchased their properties and announced a large project last year for new mid-rise apartments and office buildings. Purcell said MJQ needed a place with character and history without leaving Atlanta’s core. Underground Atlanta checked all the boxes.

Dante’s was a fixture of Underground’s heyday as a nightlife hub, boasting multiple clubs and bars during the 1970s. Underground’s status as a hotbed for light-night fun flickered out quickly.

Owner Dante Stephenson made a second run at Underground when the downtown attraction was reborn as a shopping mall in 1989, but the new Underground location closed again about a decade later. (The party carried on at Dante’s Buckhead location until 2013.)

This is a 1981 photo of Dante's Down the Hatch at Underground Atlanta.

Credit: Bill Mahan

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Credit: Bill Mahan

Underground was popular as a shopping center for a time, but later struggled, and the city sold the property to South Carolina developer WRS several years ago.

Despite multiple attempts to revitalize Underground, the Dante’s space remained untouched. But Shaneel Lalani, who bought Underground from WRS in 2020 for $31.6 million, said MJQ is a perfect fit to reintroduce late-night entertainment to the area.

“We wanted to be mindful of who comes and uses this space,” Lalani said. “We feel it’s the perfect match, because Dante’s holds a rich history with Underground, and MJQ also has a rich tradition at Ponce.”

MJQ is moving to the Dante's Down the Hatch space in Underground Atlanta which has been sitting empty for 25 years, Underground CEO Shanel Lalani works with the team to continue developing Underground Atlanta on Monday, Feb 27, 2023.   (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

‘We like these dingy vibes’

MJQ first opened in the basement of the Ponce de Leon Hotel in 1994, with its name nodding to the band Modern Jazz Quartet.

It moved three years later to its current location at 736 Ponce de Leon Ave., adding “Concourse” to its name to instill its growing eclectic nature. Ryan Murphy, MJQ’s other co-owner, called his establishment “the people’s nightclub.”

“We’re not trying to say, ‘Here’s the VIP entrance and we have hookah and bottle service,’” Murphy said. “No. Just come and have a good time. It’s your journey, and we’re just getting you there.”

The MJQ owners said Dante’s space needs at least $100,000 in renovations before MJQ can open, which is targeted before New Year’s Eve. A dining area needs to be leveled to create a new dance floor. The boat-shaped kitchen will need to be gutted to make way for additional hangout space. And support beams featuring loose wood planks throughout the space need new surfaces to avoid giving dancers splinters.

The owners vowed that Dante’s spirit will live on.

“We’re kind of tipping our hat to it,” Purcell said. “...We don’t want it to be too nice, because we still like these dingy vibes.”

Purcell said many iconic parts of Dante’s — such as its hatchway entrance — will be preserved and showcased somewhere inside. But MJQ will have its own spin, likely renovating the dance floor to look like a spaceship, embracing a sci-fi theme.

MJQ is moving to the Dante's Down the Hatch space in Underground Atlanta that has been sitting empty for 25 years, and the owners, Ryan Murphy and Ryan Purcell, are touring the space and sharing a little of what is in the planning stages on Monday, Feb 27, 2023.  Underground CEO Shanel Lalani works with the team to continue developing Underground Atlanta.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

MJQ’s lease at Underground Atlanta lasts five years, with an option to add an additional five.

Purcell expects MJQ’s current location to remain open through at least November.

The Drunken Unicorn, the music venue attached to MJQ’s Ponce location, could remain open into 2024, depending on when Portman begins construction on Ponce. Murphy said he’s unsure whether it will be relocated.

“If we find a good place to move, yeah we want to move it, but it’s not like it’s part of MJQ,” he said.

Convincing people to stay downtown

Purcell said Underground wasn’t his first choice.

“Everybody has this connotation that there’s not much going on there and there’s nothing really around it,” Purcell said. “But they reached out to us, told us their plans and showed us everything.”

Lalani is among the downtown Atlanta stakeholders attempting to breathe new life into the city’s center. He said adding new apartments and density are critical goals, matching the plans of other downtown megaprojects such as Newport’s South Downtown development and CIM Group’s multibillion transformation of of The Gulch into Centennial Yards.

Lalani said a master plan for Underground’s revitalization is complete and will be publicly released this spring. The first phase of his plan, which primarily focuses on residential, is expected to be finished by the time Atlanta hosts the World Cup in 2026, he said.

“People come to downtown either for a convention or for a sporting event,” Lalani said. “One of the biggest components is getting people to make the decision to move downtown. We’re kind of giving that a boost.”

In recent months, Underground has landed Atlanta Brewing Company, Atlanta Comedy Theatre and several restaurants.

Purcell said businesses that want a grungy veneer, like MJQ has on Ponce, will have to keep searching for historic spaces — even if they lie underground.

“The history of the city is getting wiped away so it only makes sense that we escape deeper down into Atlanta’s history for safety,” Purcell said in a news release.