It's 3 a.m. What Now? 

One guy's journey to keep the party going after the bars shut down

Talking to people about Atlanta's after-hours scene is like going to couple's therapy. It's always the same complaints: Things have changed. It's not as much fun as it used to be. What happened to the old spark?

click to enlarge A FARE TO REMEMBER: A cabbie lights a cigarette outside the lingerie shop Fantasy Fare. - JIM STAWNIAK
  • JIM STAWNIAK
  • A FARE TO REMEMBER: A cabbie lights a cigarette outside the lingerie shop Fantasy Fare.

It used to be that there were options, however sleazy, for party people determined to dance (and drink) the night (and morning) away. Not anymore. Club Anytime, a long-running den of nocturnal iniquity, morphed into the '80s-reminiscent Riviera before finally closing last year. Club 112, a blinged-out mix of hip-hoppers and thuggish rappers, moved to Crescent Avenue last year and no longer stays open all night. And the bad uncle of all 24-hour clubs, the infamously drug-addled Backstreet, closed last year after the city -- pushed by well-heeled Midtowners -- failed to renew the club's business license.

In the absence of legal, all-hours bacchanalia, and facing the additional challenge of the city's 2003 decision to shut down the bars at 3 a.m. rather than 4, I decided to investigate the tepid afterlife of Atlanta's after-hours heyday.

The following is a diary of five weekends spent looking for something, anything, to do after the Atlanta bars close. My bleary odyssey included stops at 24-hour restaurants both highbrow and low, a club that's become the haunting ground of off-duty strippers, a bowling alley resembling a fun house for ADD-plagued adults, lingerie shops that push the limits of bad taste, and the vacant parking lots of ever-elusive speakeasies.

It's worth noting that these are the experiences of a guy who admittedly contents himself with tossing a few darts at the Local or shooting some stick at the Independent. It should come as no surprise, then, that most of the times I was way outside my comfort zone.

3 a.m., Fri., Sept. 2

For those looking to extend their club time an extra hour, the reportedly coolest refuge from Atlanta is neighboring Decatur, whose forward-thinking officials have allowed bars to stay open until 4 a.m. The Decatur Social Club, a loosely organized group of revelers that used to bounce back and forth between Decatur and the ever-popular Friday night at Lenny's, recently began to flock exclusively to a courtyard shared by Azul and the Raging Burrito, just off Decatur Square. "The Chuck," who DJ's at Azul on Friday nights, had been talking up the group's weekly gatherings on www.myspace.com.

But on neither of my two visits did Azul live up to its billing as the penultimate late-night dance party. Maybe I'm just unlucky.

My first visit was right after the Decatur Social Club announced the permanent location change. Preston Craig, the club's founder, explained the night's poor attendance by saying word had not yet gotten out.

This time around, it rained -- no doubt dampening attendance, seeing as how most of the seating is outdoors.

Inside, the Chuck played MP3s off his laptop to a sparse and sometimes completely empty room. Later, he migrated outside and stood on the DJ's platform clapping his hands over his head. A black-haired girl in a sleeveless top and jeans with rolled cuffs, her arms held straight by her sides and her palms facing the floor, began dancing in earnest.

Craig did tell me that the Friday nights between my two visits were crazy. "Last weekend we had over 500 people here," he said. "Way beyond our capacity."

3 a.m., Sat., Sept. 10

click to enlarge BABY POOL: Who needs a sitter? Take the kids out with you to International Bowl. - COLEY WARD
  • COLEY WARD
  • BABY POOL: Who needs a sitter? Take the kids out with you to International Bowl.

For those of you who don't know, International Bowl is not just a bowling alley. It's a hot spot for private karaoke, steaming noodle bowls, smoky billiards and old-school-meets-new-school arcade games.

It's also on Buford Highway, meaning the crowd is a multihued mix of people, including Japanese, Ethiopian, Korean, Latino and Thai. And it's open until 4 a.m. on the weekends.

On a Saturday night, the DJ was playing angry rap. Several members of a large family filled the smoky billiards hall, dancing and drinking into the wee hours. A boy, approximately age 3 and clad in white high-tops and a red sleeveless tee, bent his knees and twisted at the waist, swinging loosely to the repetitive, thumping bass. Nearby, a group of twentysomethings shot pool, also with children in tow. A boy and girl played chase, while an infant crawled playfully in the middle of an unused pool table.

Meanwhile, my friends were feverishly competing in a game of Dance Dance Revolution, an intense test of one's coordination in which two competitors follow increasingly rapid dance steps.

The best reason to play Dance Dance Revolution: It makes you and your friends look like a bunch of fools. The best reason not to play Dance Dance Revolution: You have to put down your beer.

4:15 a.m., Sat., Sept. 10

Tired and hungry, we were fortunate to find ourselves in the middle of Atlanta's late-night dining hub. From Peruvian to Cuban, Vietnamese to Malay, Buford Highway is the restaurant row that never sleeps.

We headed a few blocks south of the bowling alley to a Korean soup joint named Tofu 88. A middle-aged woman played hostess, waitress and bus girl. She hurriedly showed us to our table and tossed a pile of menus in front of us. She returned a few minutes later. When the first person hesitated to place his order, she impatiently told us she would come back when we had made up our minds.

The soup arrived boiling hot, each bowl accompanied by two eggs, still in their shells. The idea is that you crack the eggs into the boiling broth, which cooks them. But by the time I figured that out, my soup had cooled; adding the eggs would've put me at risk of salmonella. My friend Joe showed up later and successfully added the eggs to his soup, resulting in a slightly thicker broth.

My eyes wandered from the steaming broth in front of me. A young, mostly Southeast Asian crowd sat around drowsily slurping soup and picking at bean sprouts with chopsticks, concentrating on their food. I yawned.

4 a.m., Sat., Sept. 17

I've heard from friends and co-workers that speakeasies aren't that hard to find in Atlanta. Though some are more formal than others, they are commonly described as after-hours parties where drink sales (sorry, "donations") take a back seat to drug use -- mostly cocaine, meth and Ecstasy.

I figured finding a speakeasy was going to be easier said than done. Most people who run them keep a pretty low profile, for the practical reason that what they're doing usually is illegal.

A colleague suggested I investigate a spot on Northside Drive. I took a couple of friends over to check it out, but after driving around the block several times and seeing no evidence of a party, we bailed.

4:45 a.m., Sat., Sept. 17

Since we already were on Northside Drive, we stopped by a lingerie shop recommended by a co-worker called Girls R Fun. Those in the know more commonly refer to these kinds of shops as "jack shacks."

I was more than a little anxious about venturing in. The exterior of the building -- all flickering neon and cracked glass -- promised a thoroughly seedy experience. The inside didn't disappoint.

Here's how things work at Girls R Fun: You walk in and find three girls standing around in their underwear. They explain the pricing and tell you to choose one of them. I paid $25 for 10 minutes with a young, mocha-skinned woman in a navy blue bra and panties. My adventurous and loyal friend Jenny tagged along.

We were escorted into a private room and told to hang tight. Jenny and I sat on a black pleather couch with a tear in the cushion. Black and red-checkered linoleum covered the floor, and metallic Venetian blinds shielded the room's large window. A small TV-VCR combo was mounted in the room's upper right-hand corner, and two cracked paintings of Japanese geishas hung on the far wall.

click to enlarge 3 A.M. MUNCHIES: Late-night is a great time to go grocery shopping. - JIM STAWNIAK
  • JIM STAWNIAK
  • 3 A.M. MUNCHIES: Late-night is a great time to go grocery shopping.

A piece of brown cardboard taped to the door offered a pricing guide. For an additional $25, we were entitled to "whipped cream," "wet and wild," "warm air breeze" or "sofa stirrups." Something called the "Devil's Delight" cost $50. When our girl returned, she was carrying a basket with various creams and oils. She introduced herself, placed a white towel on a neighboring couch and told us to sit on the towel. As we sat, a long bug with lots of tiny legs -- the kind that often crawls out of your shower drain -- appeared from behind the sofa and scurried up the wall.

Our girl explained that she was going to be dancing for us. For $10, she would take off her bra; for $10 more, she would take off her panties. "Once you get me naked, then we can discuss what else we can do," she said. We decided not to get her naked, settling for 10 minutes of her dancing in her underwear while we made awkward conversation about where she was from (Virginia) and her career plans (computer animation).

5:30 a.m., Sat., Sept. 17

The next stop was a slightly more upscale lingerie shop called Fantasy Fare. Again, I picked a girl from three choices. Then we asked for a tour of Fantasy Fare's four different rooms. There is a dominatrix room, a doctor's office, a classroom, and a VIP room, which, unfortunately, was occupied.

My favorite was the classroom, which included a small, portable blackboard with equations scribbled in colorful chalk, like "cock + pussy = wild monkey sex," "tits = noun" and "fuck = verb."

3 a.m., Fri., Sept. 23

The great thing about the Kroger on Ponce is that they have a 24-hour beer and wine license. That is especially helpful for people who are leaving nearby bars, namely the Local, Dugan's, MJQ and the Clermont Lounge. If you're looking to take the party home, a quick stop at Kroger is all it takes.

During a 3 a.m. stop at Kroger, I ran into Steve, whom bartenders at the Local have dubbed "the Chairman" -- he spends so much time there customers assume he's the boss. This wasn't my first time running into Steve at Kroger in the middle of the night. I'd seen him there a few weeks earlier.

"Late-night Kroger shopping is one of my favorite sports," Steve said. "I wake up the next morning and figure out what I bought the night before. It's great. I come here at night all the time."

He wasn't kidding. Steve and the cashiers were on a first name basis. They even waved to him . He saluted them back. It was like watching a celebrity buy groceries.

2:55 a.m., Sat., Sept. 24

Kenny's Alley at Underground is the cluster of clubs that the city has designated its "entertainment district" -- despite all evidence to the contrary. To encourage people to do their partying at Underground, City Council even passed an ordinance permitting the clubs there to stay open an hour later than other city bars.

At least that's what I thought until my roommate and I found Underground's bars closing up shop at 3 a.m. on a Saturday.

It turns out the only night of the week that Underground isn't open until 4 a.m. is Saturday night, when the clubs are forced to close at 3.

I would like to take this opportunity to challenge the city of Atlanta to explain the logic behind making the Underground clubs close at 3 instead of 4 a.m. on a Saturday night. If the clubs were forced to close at, say, midnight, at least that would hint at an attempt to be consistent with the state's no-booze-on-Sundays blue laws.

click to enlarge SOUPY MEMORY: Some of Tofu 88's 4 a.m. customers look a little worse for wear. - COLEY WARD
  • COLEY WARD
  • SOUPY MEMORY: Some of Tofu 88's 4 a.m. customers look a little worse for wear.

Anyway, I talked the bouncer into letting me slip into Underground's goth club, Future. Inside, there was a lot of black patent-leather. Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" played loudly over the PA. A man wearing eye makeup and a fishnet shirt was swaying his arms back and forth. A woman with pale white skin, dyed black hair and stickers on her nipples was waving her arms in the air, twirling around, breasts exposed. On the dancefloor, a middle-aged woman with short chestnut hair in jeans and a blue blouse was dancing with a younger girl in a shiny silver silk blouse and black skirt. They looked thoroughly out of place.

3:30 a.m., Sat., Sept. 24

Once again, I got a supposedly good tip on the location of a speakeasy. This tip came from multiple colleagues and friends, so I figured it was legit. I even ran into some people earlier in the evening who told me they knew the speakeasy I was headed to and that it did indeed exist.

We were looking for a place off Howell Mill Road, but when my roommate and I pulled up, all we found was a couple of guys standing outside looking for the same party, which obviously wasn't happening.

4:30 a.m., Sat., Sept. 24

Dispirited from another failed attempt to find a speakeasy, we decided to finish the evening with a little class and headed over to the InterContinental Buckhead for a snack at the hotel's all-night French restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon, which in English translates to "at the pig's foot." The restaurant actually serves that bizarre French delicacy, pig's feet.

Au Pied de Cochon seemed to be shooting for a Moulin Rouge ambiance. The walls were painted with pictures of cherubs and flying pigs, and colorful glass chandeliers hung overhead. Our waiter, a nervous man whose accent was indistinguishable, though definitely not French, placed our white cotton napkins in our laps.

I ordered the parfait -- vanilla yogurt, granola, mango and berries. My roommate ordered the chicken fried steak, but they were out, so he got the eggs Benedict instead.

Two groups of diners shouted at each other across the restaurant, jokingly trading barbs at high volume. An employee mopping the floor knocked something over and exclaimed, "Oh shit!" All of this served to prove my theory that, even at a fancy French restaurant in a classy hotel, the rules of decorum don't apply between 3 and 6 a.m.

click to enlarge DOUBLE VISION: A lovely bartender at International Bowl, where drinks are poured 'til almost 4 a.m. - COLEY WARD
  • COLEY WARD
  • DOUBLE VISION: A lovely bartender at International Bowl, where drinks are poured 'til almost 4 a.m.

3 a.m., Fri., Sept. 30

I decided to revisit Underground on a night when it was open later than other bars in Atlanta. I wanted to find out if Underground was in fact catching the spill-over from the other Atlanta bars that close earlier.

First, a bit of advice: When you go to Underground on a Friday night, you can wear that comfortable gray sweatshirt you only put on when you're at home on your couch watching B-movies, because you aren't going to see anybody you know. In fact, you'll be lucky to see anybody at all.

If city officials had secretly hoped that Underground's late hours would be a draw, they were sorely mistaken. On my second visit, Kenny's Alley was a ghost town. There were more security personnel wandering the alley than there were partiers. I walked into Latin Sol. Nobody. I went outside and asked a security officer where I could find the most action. She suggested I try Charlie Brown's, the drag queen club.

The guy working the door at Charlie Brown's checked my ID, but he didn't charge me to enter. A girl in a tight, black, sleeveless top and jeans was sitting at the bar. She introduced herself as Lindy and explained she was in town on business. Lindy then introduced me to the bartender, who had bleached blond hair and, like Lindy, was wearing a sleeveless black shirt.

"This is Joey," she said. "He's fantastic."

Joey offered to pour me a shot. I accepted.

A man with dark brown hair and eyeliner came and sat down next to Lindy. His name was Steven. Lindy introduced me, explaining that I was "straight, but still fabulous."

"I didn't know the two were exclusive," I said.

We downed the shot that Joey poured. It tasted like grape juice. I asked what it was called. "Redheaded Slut," he said.

"Who doesn't love a slut?" Lindy cooed, leaning in my direction.

"Indeed."

Joey poured me another shot.

3 a.m., Sat., Oct. 1

Some friends told me that the speakeasy I couldn't find the week before might only operate every other week. So I returned to the same spot off Howell Mill Road. I sat in my car for a half-hour. Nobody came in or out. A blue BMW drove by several times. I suspect the Beamer's occupants were looking for the same party.

I gave up on finding a speakeasy, forever.

3:30 A.M., Sat., Oct. 1

I may have failed with the speakeasies, but I did find a club on the outskirts of Buckhead that's an alleged after-hours hangout for Pink Pony strippers. I won't give the name of the club, which is located in unincorporated DeKalb County, because it serves drinks a little later than DeKalb laws allow, and I don't want to get anybody shut down.

If you can find the club before 2:30 a.m., you'll be able to get in without too much trouble. Get there after 3:30, though, and you'll have to wait in line or pay the bouncer an extra $20 to take you to the front.

click to enlarge KENNY'S ALLEY OF DESOLATION: Underground is far from overcrowded. - JIM STAWNIAK
  • JIM STAWNIAK
  • KENNY'S ALLEY OF DESOLATION: Underground is far from overcrowded.

Traffic was slowed in front of the club as cabs stopped to drop off and pick up passengers. I parked across the street and, as I stepped out of my car, heard honking followed by screeching tires. I looked up as a car careened off the road and into some power lines, taking out a street sign in the process.

The interior of the club is Davy Crockett meets Studio 54. The lobby is graced with a chandelier made of antlers, and several stuffed animals -- a squirrel, a duck, and a fish -- were hung behind the bar. In an adjacent room, a girl in a pink tube top and jeans spent several minutes gyrating against a pillar under a disco ball. A sign pointed to a neighboring VIP lounge, which was sectioned off by a black velvet rope and matching velvet curtain. A security guard told me I could score access to the VIP section by buying a bottle of $250 champagne.

Downstairs, I chatted up the bartender, who told me that the club has been open for roughly a year. I asked her how I could spot the Pink Pony girls and she shrugged and said, "They're a little hotter, I guess."

Back upstairs, the DJ played the club version of the Eurythmics song "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." A girl in light blue jeans and a brown and blue mesh shirt made out with a large man in a button-down. It was the third guy I'd seen her with in 10 minutes.

I asked the guy next to me what time it was. He said it was 4:35. I went downstairs to ask for a drink. The bartender said they'd stopped serving. I asked what time the club stopped serving, and he said 4:30.

In unincorporated DeKalb County, the bars are supposed to stop pouring by 3:55 a.m. According to a representative at the DeKalb Business and Alcohol Bureau, there are no exceptions to this law, and violators can lose their liquor license.

I guess this club has decided to roll the dice.

As I was leaving, the bartender told me I should come back the next night. On Sundays, he told me, the Pink Pony girls work as bartenders and waitresses, since that's their night off from dancing. I made a mental note.

4:45 a.m., Sat., Oct. 1

In the cab on the way home, my eyes bloodshot and my mind wired with Red Bull, I decided that no good comes of partying past 4 a.m. And that's the whole point of staying out till the crack of dawn. Being good does not -- and should not -- come into the equation.

But what does factor into the late-night equation these days? If, several years back, you found yourself at Backstreet or Club 112 or Club Anytime, you were looking for a sweaty, messy, NC-17-rated experience.

Of course, you can still find that experience in Atlanta. It's just harder. And if you're an outsider looking for, speakeasies, it's near-impossible.

Otherwise, the post-3 a.m. options are a drive to Decatur or beyond -- or a Disney-esque entertainment district with a Night of the Living Dead emptiness.

In some ways, being forced to more covertly plan your late-night makes it more exciting. But in a larger sense, it's just one more thing to worry about. It used to be that everything fun after 3 a.m. was immoral.

Now it's illegal, too.

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