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The Vortex Blog

CRACK AND W!ENERS

In 1997, when we decided to relocate The Vortex from West Peachtree to Peachtree Street, people did not hesitate to tell us we were nuts. Maybe we were crazy. I’ll admit it. After all, the stretch of Peachtree we moved our bar to was pretty sketchy back then. None of today’s soaring modern condo towers or fancy shops even existed. The area had much more of an urban wasteland feel to it.

Just one block south of us, the Atlanta Cabana Hotel represented the pinnacle of mid-century modern design when it opened in 1958. But as people began abandoning the city for the suburbs in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, it fell into disrepair. During one of its final incarnations as a Quality Inn, it was routinely rented out to a series of rather unorthodox groups. A girlfriend of mine once had her nipples pierced at a “Sex Toy” convention held there. Well, actually only one nipple. She couldn’t take the pain. Anyway, by the time we had moved The Vortex into the neighborhood, the hotel had been permanently shuttered, and sat decaying behind a rusty chain link fence.

The brick building that we moved into was originally built in 1950. It served as offices for the U.S. Department of Agriculture until the government abandoned it in the 1980s. At that point, it remained vacant and boarded-up for over a decade. In the mid-90’s the blighted property was acquired by local developer, Jim Borders. His idea was to redevelop the building into apartments that would also include retail space on the bottom floor. At the time, a lot of people probably thought he was crazy too.

Directly behind us, Cypress Street literally had a world-wide reputation as the place to go to pick-up male prostitutes. The situation reminded me of the Native American legend where a warrior was able to walk from horizon to horizon on the backs of the buffalo without stepping on the ground. Sure, that was a lot of buffalo, but I’m guessing there were actually more hustlers. In fact, you could barely drive your car down the street without hitting one. But if you managed to squeeze through, these young men would openly display their packages for your inspection, day or night. Sort of like you had won a prize, I guess. At least they were friendly.

Directly across the street was a Citco gas station that we lovingly referred to as the “Crack-co,” because drug dealers openly sold crack in the parking lot. Catty-corner was a boarded-up Krystal, and just beyond that was the notorious Backstreet nightclub. Originally opened in 1975, this was one of just a handful of Atlanta clubs that operated 24/7. They featured a long-running drag show which was immensely popular with both a gay and straight clientele. It was actually pretty awesome. I’m not ashamed to admit that I stumbled out of that place into the morning sunrise on more than one occasion. But eight years after we moved in, the forces of politics and gentrification finally caught up with Backstreet, and it was replaced with a shiny new highrise.

Sometimes the nostalgic side of me yearns for a $3 pitcher of beer at the Stein Club, the smoky dive bar that served as refuge from the trendy Buckhead bar scene of the day. Or a bowl of seafood etouffee from the little French Quarter Food Shop, served-up by Missy, the diminutive owner with the mouth of a sailor. But sadly, those spots were also demolished to make room for “progress.” To some it may seem that The Vortex was part of the first wave of urban-pioneers willing to invest in a questionable part of Atlanta. But in hindsight, what I have come to realize, is that The Vortex is actually one of the last remaining links to the “good ol’ days” of drinking and debauchery in this town. So if anyone wants to join me to toast those days, you’ll find me sitting at my bar. Come on in. Everyone is welcome.

THE DAY I MET MISS ANN

I love hamburgers. All different kinds of them. So anytime I hear about a good burger, I will always make a pilgrimage to try it. Back in the mid-1990s, when The Vortex had only been open for a couple of years, one of my regular customers told me about Ann’s Snack Bar on Memorial Drive. “You have to try the Ghetto Burger and meet the owner, Miss Ann. You’ll love her,” they said. “She doesn’t tolerate any nonsense. Just like you guys.” I was told that the service could be unbearably slow, that the place was tiny, and that I might have to wait outside until a spot was available. They also warned that Miss Ann could be a little bit on the surly side.

To avoid a long wait, I decided to visit the Snack Bar at about 3:00 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon. Miss Ann was working the griddle behind the counter. There were no other employees. I sat myself at one of the eight stools available, and watched as she finished cooking burgers for the patient customers sitting next to me. When she finally walked over to me, she asked, “What can I get for you today?” I quickly responded with, “A Ghetto Burger, please. I hear they’re great.” “Well, I think you’ll like it,” she replied. “What’s your name, son?” “Michael,” I said. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Michael.”

I wanted to keep the conversation going, so I said, “I own a bar, Miss Ann, and we sell burgers too.” “Oh, that’s nice,” she responded. “What’s it called?” “The Vortex,” I replied. “Have you ever heard of it?” “No I sure haven’t,” she confessed, “But I don’t get away from here very often.” As she cooked my order I noticed the “Rules & Regulations For Service” posted above the counter. Rules like, do not lay or lean on the counter, do not sit or stand babies on the counter, and do not curse in Snack Bar.

I said, “I like your rules, Miss Ann.” She replied, “Well, I’ll tell you – this is my kitchen, this is my business. Everyone is welcome here, but you just have to show a little respect, that’s all.” I said, “I agree, Miss Ann. We have some rules printed on our menu at The Vortex. I didn’t know we’d need them when we opened, but I was surprised by how many people are just plain rude.” “That’s probably because you were raised right,” Miss Ann replied. “Not everyone is as lucky as you are. Some folks never learn about respect at home. I do what I can to help people like that. I try to teach them about respect in my own way. I hope I make a difference.”

As her guests at the counter thinned out, we continued to talk. We shared stories about our restaurants while she cooked for a few customers who came and went. At times people at the counter would chime in on our conversation. We all laughed a lot. I never did see her surly side, if there was one. Miss Ann was a welcoming, warm, caring woman. Time flew by that afternoon, until I finally realized I had to get back to The Vortex. “I’ve got to go to work, Miss Ann,” I said. “Well Mr. Michael, I sure enjoyed meeting you. Good luck with your business. I’ll try to make it by one day. I hope you’ll come back and see me.” “I will Miss Ann,” I said. “It’s been a real pleasure to meet you.” And it was.

Running a business has a tendency to keep you very, very busy. I don’t think Miss Ann ever made it by The Vortex. And sadly, I was only able to get back to visit her one more time. While I was not a regular at her Snack Bar, I felt like we had a genuine connection. So the news of her death this week has had a great impact on me. She was a hard-working, honest soul, and I had a great deal of respect for her. She stood over the heat of that griddle every day since 1971, trying make each of her guest’s day a little better in the best way she knew how. She was truly one of a kind. And she definitely did make a difference. Rest in Peace, Miss Ann. You will be missed by many.

HAPPY SNORTS AND A WIGGLY BUTT

My friend Ashley is an angel. When it comes to canines, anyway. She’s been rescuing homeless pups for as long as I’ve known her. Bully breeds in particular. She even founded the Atlanta ResponsiBully Coalition to help advocate for these often misunderstood dogs. Her dedication is inspiring. So it was not unusual for my wife and I to meet a different foster dog every time we’d go to Ashley’s house. But we never considered adopting one. It just wouldn’t be practical. We were both way too busy running our restaurants. And besides, we lived in a condo. But as I learned, common sense doesn’t apply when it comes to matters of the heart. Any thought of practicality flew right out the window the day my wife met Jezebel.

I’ll admit it. There was something special about this sweet white pup who looked like Petey from the Little Rascals. But she was scrappy, to say the least. Just skin and bones, with teets that dragged on the ground. And of course, she was heartworm positive. All the signs of irresponsible dog ownership were there. Ashley told us that she had been locked in a foreclosed house with no food or water, and left to die. Probably used as a breeder, and abandoned when she was no longer useful to her owner. So when Jezebel walked over to my wife, placed her warm puppy head in my wife’s hands, and stared up with soleful eyes that said, “My life has been hard. Will you take care of me?” – that was all it took. This dog was coming home with us. Nothing I could possibly say would change this fact. Absolutely nothing.

This poor mistreated little dog had every reason to be skeptical of people, but she was willing to give herself over to us with joy and enthusiasm. That is the magic of dogs. She created a special place for herself in our home and in our hearts. She’s even gone on to become the official spokespup of my wife’s restaurant, Bone Garden Cantina. Jezebel’s portrait hangs on the wall above the host stand, and she appears on coasters and postcards that celebrate her adorableness (and love of tacos and fiestas). And even though she has been a part of our lives for six years now, every time she welcomes us home with her happy snorts and a wiggly butt, she reminds us what it feels like to be completely accepted and unconditionally loved. It’s pretty remarkable. Anyone who has ever loved a dog knows exactly what I’m talking about.

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Vortex Radio Ep8 – Dreaming of Dreamy Matt

Dreamy Matt, Atlanta’s most lusted-after bartender is heating things up this week! Get the scoop on what it’s like to be that damned good looking AND be in a band, too. Guys want to be him and ladies want to…YA know….tune in for the dirty details!

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