September 27, 2021

The Buckhead nightclub that still spins classic tunes under a disco ball

Never let it be said that longtime Atlanta nightspot Johnny’s Hideaway doesn’t gather a dedicated and wide-ranging mixture of fans.

A recent Wednesday night found Richard Voss, 78, and his wife circulating and reconnecting with friends. Energetic and genial, Richard Voss related how the couple would come from Birmingham and descend on Johnny’s three or four times a year.

Richard Voss, 78, and his wife, Jeanne traveled from Michigan to dance at Johnny’s Hideaway in Buckhead

That would be the Birmingham in Michigan, not the one in Alabama. It’s 611 miles away, as the crow flies.

“We flew down today to come here because it’s the one and only 50s, 60s and 70s dance place that I know of in America. It’s one of a kind and very special for us,” Voss said as the couple prepared for a foray onto the dance area. It was their first visit since the pandemic’s onset.

“We always have a good time and can relive memories of the past,” he said, lamenting that even metro Detroit-rich with Motown and music heritage-has nothing similar.

That’s an apt tribute to a club whose atmosphere can seem encased in amber — not that that’s a bad thing.

An institution for more than 40-years

Johnny’s debuted in 1979 courtesy of the bigger-than-life tavernkeeper Johnny Esposito and has long been a favorite of the 40-and-over crowd. The watering hole tucked away in an unpretentious Buckhead strip center had skewed younger in recent years, while burnishing its retro vibe.

Then came the pandemic. Older adults hit the pause button for more than a year.

“The older folks are starting to trickle back in but it’s still only about 25 percent of what we had for happy-hour pre-COVID,” said current owner Chris D’Auria.

Diana and Larry Bryan dance at Johnny’s Hideaway

A recent weekday afternoon found him musing on the roller-coaster from March of 2020 until now. After a several-week shutdown, he said, Johnny’s Hideaway carefully reopened while following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gradually increasing capacity, hiring a specialized deep-cleaning company and installing a high-end air filtration system have seemingly reassured more than a few older patrons.

A cross generation hotspot

From happy hour into a recent Wednesday late evening, mature adults were well-represented at the club, chatting amiably at the bar, working the crowd and bobbing and weaving on the dance floor.

But don’t necessarily expect them to be in evidence when the house lights brighten at 3 a.m. There’s a noticeable turnover around 9-10 p.m., with the older set departing and a much younger crowd flooding in until the wee hours.

But as longtime DJ Greg Picciano puts it, “Some of the older folks stay around to see what the younger folks are up to.”

Picciano and his fellow tunesmiths work the turntables expertly, rolling danceable hits of the 60s through the 90s. Music with senior appeal figures more into the mix early (Buddy Holly, Motown), segueing to tunes by the likes of Bruno Mars and Maroon 5 as the night deepens. 

It’s familiar without seeming formulaic — an approach that applies to far more than what’s pumping through the speakers.

True to its roots

The club’s décor has changed little over the years, with high-top tables and plushy chairs reminiscent of a mid-20th century supper club. There’s a Sinatra room and an Elvis shrine with plenty of memorabilia. Muted house lighting creates the feel of, well, a hideaway. And as for the adult beverages-the barkeeps pour with a generous hand.

The Sinatra Room at Johnny’s Hideaway in Buckhead

And, sure, say managers and patrons alike, some people come in looking to hook up, but anyone expecting a “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” atmosphere may want to look elsewhere. The staff prides itself on maintaining a no-hassle approach, dealing with any out-of-line behavior quickly and emphatically.

The age range of the clientele — quite literally from 21 to 91 — can make for interesting people-watching, regulars say. 

D’Auria has seen it over and over again; several younger women are sitting at a table and an older gentleman will approach and ask one of them to join him under the (yes, they have one) mirrored ball.

“She’d assume she was going to be dancing with some old guy, and he’s swinging her and dipping her. And there’s no ‘get away from me you creep.’”

“It’s always fun to see,” he said.

Seeing friends, young, old and new

Sharon Siegler, 69, is a two-decade Johnny’s fan who’s gotten to know the Vosses and other regulars over the years. Like them, she’s putting her boogie shoes back on after holding off for more than a year. Being back on familiar ground brings a smile.

Sharon Siegler, left, and Judy Cohen

“Everyone can dance,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what age you are. I don’t want to have children with you. I don’t want to marry you. I just want a dance partner for a while.”

That said, marriages have occurred on the heels of Johnny’s meetups, according to D’Auria.  And inevitably some of those unions wind up on the rocks. “So, the standing joke is, ‘Who gets the Hideaway in the divorce?’” he said with a grin, adding that one longtime patron who had been married three times met all of his wives there.

The lunch bunch

Older patrons also stake a claim on Johnny’s during the day. A regular weekday lunch bunch gather. A group of college football fans spends the gridiron season throwing money into a pot, then picking winners.

D’Auria, the son of one of Esposito’s original partners, and his staff work hard to keep the nightspot’s tried-and-true approach intact. You get the feeling that he’s not only running a busy club, he’s safeguarding a legacy.

No detail escapes his notice, whether it’s the music mix, the quality of the bar food or how quickly managers and servers greet and seat guests. Those who repeatedly run afoul of his particulars can expect to hear about it in a very direct and sometimes heated way, he admitted. 

D’Auria says he has weighed expanding but not elsewhere in Atlanta. He doesn’t want to splinter his base of support. Nashville is a distinct possibility, he said. He even had a potential location lined up, but the deal fell through.

So in the meantime, Johnny’s remains — in the truest sense of the phrase — one of a kind.

“I’ve been all over the world and I’ve never seen a place like this,” one patron said.

The Reporter also wrote about Johnny’s 30th anniversary in 2009.