Johnny’s Hideaway

A new generation discovers the club

Nothing much has changed at Johnny’s Hideaway, the cougar bar buried in the strip mall homogeneity of Roswell Road. Not the disco ball or the parquet floor or the glamour shots of dead and dying celebrities. Divorcées in tight jeans and halter tops still troll the perimeter. The oldies soundtrack is the same, though founder Johnny Esposito, “Mr. Nightlife,” passed away in April at age seventy-nine. Chris Dauria, the son of Esposito’s partner Mike Dana, has run the place for years—still guarding the door with his entourage of big, bald bouncers, as if something valuable were inside. And maybe, in this age of disposable bars, there is.

At a table by the door, near the Sinatra shrine, sits Cecil Tucker—a pillar of the legendary bar since its adolescence. Last April the Hideaway turned thirty-two. But Cecil knows that, in bar years, it’s much older. Now seventy-one, with thick silver hair, strong arms, and a bit of a paunch, Tucker has been coming here for a quarter century. He made his money “selling tractors to folks who went to the Gold Club,” an upscale strip club that thrived on Piedmont Road before ignominiously going under in 2001. Like so many, Tucker met his girlfriend at the Hideaway. That was sixteen years ago, after he met a few others here. (Dauria, for his part, is dating one of the bartenders.)

Tucker is the only patron who has a table reserved for him—whether he calls to say he’s coming or not. It’s by the door because that’s where he first sat down on a Thursday night all those years ago. Under the glass top, there’s a picture of his younger self. “It doesn’t matter who walks through that door,” says Dauria. “Bobby Cox, Ted Turner . . . That’s Cecil’s table.”

Many of Johnny’s servers have been there for five years or more. Bar staff wear shirts that say “Got Cougar?” And they pour alcohol onto flames ignited on the dance floor. Over the past decade, Johnny’s has tried and failed to lure patrons in other ways: “Karaoke, trivia, poker—they all bombed,” says Dauria. “Open-mic night, too. People just want to dance. It’s all about the music.” Deejay Jack Pena has spun classic fifties to nineties tunes here for going on fourteen years, and he’s never accepted a bribe—he’s been offered a few—to play Lil Wayne or Soulja Boy.

Nonetheless, since the muting of Buckhead’s bar scene in 2007, Johnny’s has seen a spate of younger patrons. On Friday and Saturday nights, after 10 p.m., the average age—which reaches max capacity (265) every weekend—is well under thirty, according to Dauria. After filming here for last winter’s Farrelly brothers movie, Hall Pass, stars Owen Wilson, Jenna Fischer, and Christina Applegate returned to party on their own. And young adults, some second-generation fans, come to dance to their boomer parents’ favorite music.

When Tucker arrives from Gwinnett, the bar gets his drinks ready fast: Canadian Club and 7UP, with a coffee sidecar. “I’m an awake drunk,” he says. At Johnny’s last anniversary party, Tucker sipped and recalled “even older days.” Meanwhile, Pena played “Little Surfer Girl.” Cougars danced in the crepuscular light. And along the bar lurked a lone wolf, a sports-coated man in his fifties who, upon seeing a young brunette, boxed her in with his cocktail arm and began to talk about how he’d found the cure for autism.

>> BLOG: Rich Eldredge’s collection of quotes from “Mr. Nightlife”

Photograph by David Walter Banks

Charles Bethea is one of our editorial contributors.
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