"I'll have a Sazerac," my friend says brightly to the bartender at Dante's Down the Hatch. He's still trying to adjust his eyes to the dimness that only adds to the confusion when you set foot in Dante's. What else is confusing? The ship in the middle of the room. The crocodiles in the water flowing under the bridge you cross to get to the bar. The wax figure of Mark Twain hanging out spookily on the way to the bathroom. The utterly bizarre awesomeness, in other words.
The bartender looks perplexed. "How do you make a Sazerac?" she asks. Instead, my friend asks for a recommendation. "Think of anything that was popular in the '80s," she says. "That's what we've got here."
Dante's Down the Hatch is one of those places that rightfully should be fiction. A fondue restaurant with a madhouse-meets-Disney theme and décor, an elusive and eccentric pipe-smoking owner who collects vintage cars and spouts tall tales, Dante's has been a destination for prom-goers and awkward first dates for 41 years. First opened in Underground Atlanta, the restaurant moved to its current location in 1981. Now, sitting across Peachtree Road from Lenox Square mall, Dante's is an unexpected relic amongst the hotel bistros and gleaming high-rises.
As a signature Atlanta experience, Dante's is a must-do. It's like entering someone's wacky childhood fantasy of what a restaurant should be. The story goes that owner Dante Stephensen, traveling around Europe and the Mediterranean while in the Navy, collected quirky ideas about food and culture that would become the inspiration for Dante's. He wanted a ship! With live jazz! And crocodiles! And fondue!
It's unclear what about the restaurant is fact and what fiction. For instance, the website claims enigmatically that Dante's is "divided into 13 levels, all but two interconnecting." It's true that the place is a warren of rooms and architectural hijinks, but most of it seems to take place on two levels. But there really are live crocodiles in the moat surrounding the ship. In fact, in 1978, Dante's became the country's first non-zoo establishment to hatch a live crocodile (or so it claims — I couldn't find anything to refute this). And there is an antique barbershop from England tucked into one of the weird corners of the restaurant.
It costs an extra $7 to sit inside the ship itself to eat dinner, but it's worth it for the boasting rights and because a jazz combo plays on deck six nights a week. Waiters lead you over the moat and down the stairs into the ship, then to a snug little cabin where you can sit and drink and fondue to your heart's content.
And what of the fondue? Hmm. There are certain aspects of fondue that don't change much. The basic concept behind cheese fondue is that melty cheese is disgustingly delicious, unless it's made in some special or artisan way, which at Dante's it is not. You scoop up the mixture of Emmental, Gruyère and "other Swiss cheeses" with small hunks of spongy, slightly dry white and brown breads, which Stephensen claims is baked by Native Americans who live in the basement (no, really).
The cheese fondue is at least a big pot of slutty fun and, as such, is the only appetizer I can recommend. Chinese dumplings were kind of mattressy in texture, and a "captain's salad" was a huge pile of industrial-grade lettuce, ham, mushrooms, tomatoes and grated cheese. Beef stew had an unsettling chew. The soup — labeled on the menu only as "soup" — is a better bet, with a slightly swampy but pleasant curry undertone surrounding bits of chicken and veggies. For a flashback to 1972, order the cannon ball — a big sphere of orange cheddar and port wine crusted in pecans.
The main event — the fondue dinners — are immensely amusing, totally sharable and only sort-of good. The Mandarin fondue is hard to resist, comprising chicken, pork, beef and shrimp. But the meats are cut into little nubs and are somewhat indistinguishable. Better to go for the beef, which the menu helpfully explains comes only from "Tasmania, an island province to the south of Australia." The pieces are cut bigger, better for determining your cook time in the bowl of bubbling oil, and better for dipping in one of the tantalizing sauces. Sauces range from "Asian" to "French" and are all equally bad.
But here's the question: Does it matter? Do you really care, while sitting in your cabin, drinking your Hurricane (that's the drink my friend ended up with, God help him), listening to the live jazz, dipping your bread into your vat of "sweet tub butter," that the food isn't exactly cutting-edge? You don't come to a place like Dante's for a culinary experience any more than you go to WrestleMania to watch a sporting competition. It doesn't matter! This is the most fun you'll have in a restaurant all year!
Go for the ship. Go for the music. Go for the crocodiles or because you're bored or because — although the word "unique" is almost meaningless with overuse — Dante's is genuinely, unequivocally unique in every way.