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It's 3 a.m. What Now?

One guy's journey to keep the party going after the bars shut down

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Talking to people about Atlanta's after-hours scene is like going to couple's therapy. It's always the same complaints: Things have changed. It's not as much fun as it used to be. What happened to the old spark?

A FARE TO REMEMBER: A cabbie lights a cigarette outside the lingerie shop Fantasy Fare. - JIM STAWNIAK
  • JIM STAWNIAK
  • A FARE TO REMEMBER: A cabbie lights a cigarette outside the lingerie shop Fantasy Fare.

It used to be that there were options, however sleazy, for party people determined to dance (and drink) the night (and morning) away. Not anymore. Club Anytime, a long-running den of nocturnal iniquity, morphed into the '80s-reminiscent Riviera before finally closing last year. Club 112, a blinged-out mix of hip-hoppers and thuggish rappers, moved to Crescent Avenue last year and no longer stays open all night. And the bad uncle of all 24-hour clubs, the infamously drug-addled Backstreet, closed last year after the city -- pushed by well-heeled Midtowners -- failed to renew the club's business license.

In the absence of legal, all-hours bacchanalia, and facing the additional challenge of the city's 2003 decision to shut down the bars at 3 a.m. rather than 4, I decided to investigate the tepid afterlife of Atlanta's after-hours heyday.

The following is a diary of five weekends spent looking for something, anything, to do after the Atlanta bars close. My bleary odyssey included stops at 24-hour restaurants both highbrow and low, a club that's become the haunting ground of off-duty strippers, a bowling alley resembling a fun house for ADD-plagued adults, lingerie shops that push the limits of bad taste, and the vacant parking lots of ever-elusive speakeasies.

It's worth noting that these are the experiences of a guy who admittedly contents himself with tossing a few darts at the Local or shooting some stick at the Independent. It should come as no surprise, then, that most of the times I was way outside my comfort zone.

3 a.m., Fri., Sept. 2

For those looking to extend their club time an extra hour, the reportedly coolest refuge from Atlanta is neighboring Decatur, whose forward-thinking officials have allowed bars to stay open until 4 a.m. The Decatur Social Club, a loosely organized group of revelers that used to bounce back and forth between Decatur and the ever-popular Friday night at Lenny's, recently began to flock exclusively to a courtyard shared by Azul and the Raging Burrito, just off Decatur Square. "The Chuck," who DJ's at Azul on Friday nights, had been talking up the group's weekly gatherings on www.myspace.com.

But on neither of my two visits did Azul live up to its billing as the penultimate late-night dance party. Maybe I'm just unlucky.

My first visit was right after the Decatur Social Club announced the permanent location change. Preston Craig, the club's founder, explained the night's poor attendance by saying word had not yet gotten out.

This time around, it rained -- no doubt dampening attendance, seeing as how most of the seating is outdoors.

Inside, the Chuck played MP3s off his laptop to a sparse and sometimes completely empty room. Later, he migrated outside and stood on the DJ's platform clapping his hands over his head. A black-haired girl in a sleeveless top and jeans with rolled cuffs, her arms held straight by her sides and her palms facing the floor, began dancing in earnest.

Craig did tell me that the Friday nights between my two visits were crazy. "Last weekend we had over 500 people here," he said. "Way beyond our capacity."

3 a.m., Sat., Sept. 10

BABY POOL: Who needs a sitter? Take the kids out with you to International Bowl. - COLEY WARD
  • COLEY WARD
  • BABY POOL: Who needs a sitter? Take the kids out with you to International Bowl.

For those of you who don't know, International Bowl is not just a bowling alley. It's a hot spot for private karaoke, steaming noodle bowls, smoky billiards and old-school-meets-new-school arcade games.

It's also on Buford Highway, meaning the crowd is a multihued mix of people, including Japanese, Ethiopian, Korean, Latino and Thai. And it's open until 4 a.m. on the weekends.

On a Saturday night, the DJ was playing angry rap. Several members of a large family filled the smoky billiards hall, dancing and drinking into the wee hours. A boy, approximately age 3 and clad in white high-tops and a red sleeveless tee, bent his knees and twisted at the waist, swinging loosely to the repetitive, thumping bass. Nearby, a group of twentysomethings shot pool, also with children in tow. A boy and girl played chase, while an infant crawled playfully in the middle of an unused pool table.

Meanwhile, my friends were feverishly competing in a game of Dance Dance Revolution, an intense test of one's coordination in which two competitors follow increasingly rapid dance steps.

The best reason to play Dance Dance Revolution: It makes you and your friends look like a bunch of fools. The best reason not to play Dance Dance Revolution: You have to put down your beer.

4:15 a.m., Sat., Sept. 10

Tired and hungry, we were fortunate to find ourselves in the middle of Atlanta's late-night dining hub. From Peruvian to Cuban, Vietnamese to Malay, Buford Highway is the restaurant row that never sleeps.

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