By John Schaffner
Since about 1979, the slogan for Johnny’s Hideaway has been “Atlanta’s only nightclub for big kids.” Not much has changed in 30 years. Some old-time regulars would say nothing has changed — and they like it that way.
One of the old DJs came up with the Buckhead club’s slogan, but at this point no one is sure when. And it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Johnny’s Hideaway has not only lasted, but has become its own legend as one of the city’s go-to places for 30 years, while other restaurants, clubs and bars have opened and closed in six months or less.
Johnny’s Hideaway celebrated its 30th birthday April 30 in the same way it celebrated its 20th and 10th, with many of the same faces, albeit older, in the crowd for a toast.
One difference is that Johnny Esposito, one of the founders and the man whose name the nightclub carries, no longer is associated with the club.
Chris Dauria, one of the owners and the manager of the nightclub, said the slogan “really became the catchphrase more for the age demographic we used to have. We still have that age group, but Thursday, Friday and Saturday after midnight I feel old, and I am 40.”
On those nights, the club gets a crowd of people from their mid-20s to their 30s — a group Dauria referred to as “kids.”
Although Esposito is no longer involved, two of the original owners still are there, almost daily: Dauria’s dad, Mike Dana, and Waxie Gordon. Gordon bought into the club in 1980 and still works there Sunday nights. Dana will be 71 this year; Gordon, 75.
But Dana and Gordon are not the only familiar faces still there. Bartenders Butch Baugher and Harold Brown have greeted guests and poured drinks at the front bar for more than 25 years.
Dauria said Baugher and Brown are the biggest reason customers have come back almost every night for 30 years. “They know every customer by name and what they drink. That is what builds loyalty,” Dauria said. “The only reason we are still open is because of our regulars. They are here for lunchtime, then they show back up around 5 p.m.”
He said they know by name 90 percent of the people who come through the door Sunday through Thursday early, even through happy hour Friday. “Friday and Saturday night it is probably down to about 50 percent regulars.”
The club has not changed physically in its 30 years. It is the same 4,200 square feet in the same location.
“Every three years we change the carpet, and my father will take about two months to find a mill that will still make this carpet rather than go to Dalton and pick out a similar carpet that would be cheaper,” Dauria said.
They also change the wood on the dance floor every three years.
They get the chair-covering material in bulk from the only company that still makes it, located in Washington state, he said. “All the table tops, all the chairs, all the carpet, the bar tops have to the same color. … Can’t change anything.”
The “new” features of the club are the Sinatra room upfront (13 years old now); the King’s Corner, a shrine to Elvis, erected back in 2002; the photos along the walls and the disk jockey’s booth, added in the mid-1980s; and the recently redone bathrooms.
Dauria’s father was “sort of friends” with Esposito, and they brought in a third party as sort of a money guy, but it did not work out. There were five partners for a short period, including Esposito, before he sold out in 1983 to try the concept in Florida. It didn’t work with two attempts in Florida or with one in Alabama.
Esposito came back in 1987 and bought into the club, then retired in 1997 when Dauria came on after managing American Pie in Sandy Springs.
Dauria said Esposito’s leaving was not totally happy. “I was probably too young and full of vinegar for Johnny.” Dauria said it was “a little acrimonious between Johnny, Waxie and my father. Now Johnny and I get along real well.”
He said the club has rules, such as no drinking or smoking on the dance floor. He said some people complain about the smoking in the club. “The reason we have been able to maintain that is we are 21 and older. We never let kids in. You know what you get when you walk in the door. We are a full restaurant that has smoking.”
Asked to recount a memorable Johnny’s Hideaway moment, Dauria said, “The 20th anniversary party. It was a mob scene and was the first time the club gave away an anniversary CD, ‘The 20 Greatest Hits of Johnny’s Hideaway.’ The entertainment was Lenny Stabile, the greatest Sinatra impersonator I have ever heard.”
The commemorative gift for the 30th anniversary was a new “20 Greatest Hits of Johnny’s Hideaway” CD.
As for Johnny Esposito, he turns 78 this year and is operating a small lounge attached to the Landmark Diner across Roswell Road in Buckhead.