One of the best dates ever

This week Carla and I celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary with a Friday night dinner at Perry St. Chophouse in downtown Lawrenceville. Highly recommend, by the way.

Lance and Carla Wallace celebraLance and Carla Wallace outside the Perry St. Chophouse in downtown Lawrenceville.
The happy couple for anniversary No. 26 at the Perry St. Chophouse in downtown Lawrenceville.

The night out reminded me of one of the best anniversary dates of our 26-year run.

The best dates are the ones that begin with low or no expectations and turn out to be filled with conversation, laughter, good food and new experiences. Such was the case when we had a simple dinner date at the legendary Atlanta eatery, Dante’s Down the Hatch.

In the spring of 2007, we wanted to mark our 10th anniversary with something special and memorable. Our anniversary tradition has always been to alternate planning. I plan our celebration in the odd years, and Carla plans the even. For our 10th, Carla arranged for the boys to spend the weekend with her parents in Sandersville, and she booked a room at the Intercontinental Hotel in Buckhead, a section of Atlanta filled with upscale dining and high dollar retail. It wasn’t a long way from our home in Lilburn as measured on a map, but having the weekend to ourselves was lightyears away from our suburban existence.

Carla used to book a five-star hotel at three-star prices. The trick was, when she accepted the price and booked the rooms, the location wasn’t revealed until after the transaction was confirmed. That bit of spontaneity was only the beginning. Once our accommodations were revealed to be at the Intercontinental, she researched nearby restaurants and activities putting together a great weekend of fine dining, unique shopping and neighborhood touring.

The first night we ate at the pristine and trendy restaurant Aria. The food was delicious, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. The all-white, modern decor felt cold and antiseptic, but we had a great time and called it a “win.”

Saturday night turned out to be the most memorable of the weekend.

The setting could not have been more dramatic or romantic, like something out of a modern-day adaptation of “Cinderella.” We dressed up a little, but not too fancy. We decided to take advantage of the hotel’s limo service to have a driver take us and pick us up, so we wouldn’t have to worry about parking, which we understood could be a problem at Dante’s.

When we hit the lobby, we were greeted by a scene straight out of the red carpet on Oscar’s night: dozens of Atlanta’s rich and famous arriving at the hotel’s ballroom in luxury cars. Because we married in May, our anniversary often falls during high school prom season. On more than one occasion, we have found ourselves celebrating our anniversary at a nice restaurant with high school kids in tuxedos and gowns sitting at the tables next to us.

This was prom on steroids. We had no idea when we booked our stay that the Intercontinental was hosting a high-dollar benefit gala. While we waited for the hotel car to pick us up, we enjoyed the people watching and engaged in a little vicarious promenading.

When the car did finally pull around to the front doors and pick us up, the concierge put another couple in the limo with us. He asked us if that was a problem, and, of course, we were amenable. They turned out to be another suburban Atlanta couple that looked to be about our age doing the same thing we were — having a weekend “in the city” getaway. They, too, were heading out for a night on the town.

It was fun chatting about the gala-goers and comparing just how similar our lives were. We were kindred spirits sharing a car intent on putting our mundane Monday through Friday lives behind us. The driver dropped them off first, leaving us by ourselves for a few minutes as he navigated Peachtree Street to Dante’s.

“Y’all ever been there before?” he asked us as he turned into the parking lot.

“Nope, first time,” I answered.

“You’re in for an experience.”

From the moment we stepped in the door, we knew our driver was right.

Interior of Dante's Down the Hatch restaurant with old pirate ship in the middle.
Dante’s interior from 2013, just before it closed for good and was torn down. Photo courtesy of Haute Living

Rather than the austere and fashionable decor of Aria the night before, we were greeted by a carnival scene. It was dark, though outside it was barely dusk. The street lamps and lanterns illuminated a replica wooden pirate ship at port circa 1717.

The strains of jazz music hit our ears, another of Dante’s inexplicable paradoxes. The music was lively and contributed to a festive atmosphere, but it seemed like an odd choice given the restaurant’s decor and theme.

The air was damp and the smell musty as we plunked across a wooden boardwalk on the way to our table. We were escorted up a wooden stair to a cozy table overlooking the harbor. Known for its fondue menu, we went with the signature meal beginning with bread dipped in melted cheese before progressing to the steak and shrimp cooked on a little pot of oil over a burner right at the table. We used skewers and long, skinny forks to cook and dip our food, and it took a few tries to get it right. By the end of our meal, we were getting the texture and flavor we liked.

Fondue, jazz and a pirate ship were as odd a combination as I could have possibly imagined in my worst fever dream. I didn’t know if I should feel that the experience was tacky and shameful or hilarious and wonderful.

It looked and felt like we were having dinner in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. It was not fancy. It was not fine dining. It was whimsical and weird, the perfect setting to enjoy each other’s company and laugh.

Like the first 10 years of our marriage, we decided to just go with it. As dates go, it was the perfect combination of unexpected and fun.

What’s your best or most memorable date? Ever been to Dante’s back in the day? Share your memories with a comment below.