A CONDENSED HISTORY OF THE VORTEX
In 1991, Michael Benoit was in his late twenties, working as a commercial artist in his hometown of Los Angeles. Growing increasingly tired of life in the big city, he realized it was time for a change. That year, he embarked on a two-week driving tour and visited Atlanta for the first time. To him, Atlanta seemed like a cool small town. It was young, affordable and had a thriving nightlife. He was sold. He packed up his house in LA and moved without hesitation. It wasn’t long before he was followed by his brother, Hank, and sister, Suzanne, who were also ready to bid farewell to Southern California. Three adult siblings were now living together, for the first time in over twenty years, in a small brick ranch house in Atlanta. Wanting to avoid a job search, and hoping to create a little fun in their newly adopted city, the three decided to pool their meager resources and open a bar. They found a tiny pub for rent on the corner of West Peachtree Street in Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood. Even though this was an under-developed area at the time, and considered undesirable by many locals, the trio stubbornly forged ahead, and opened the original location of The Vortex Bar & Grill on April 20, 1992.
Their idea was to create a cozy little neighborhood bar featuring craft beers, quality liquors, and a large selection of single malt scotch. A secret hideout for serious drinkers. Since they didn’t want their patrons to leave when they got hungry, they also decided to serve “a really good hamburger.” They filled their little bar with kooky, eclectic décor, then opened the doors and personally welcomed each and every new customer. They worked behind the bar and waited tables from opening until close every day. Their big personalities and offbeat sense of humor quickly became hallmarks of this hip new hang-out. Since they were doing this to have fun, the siblings also refused to put up with rude or demanding customers, declaring their bar an “Official Idiot-Free Zone.” People who aggravated them were tossed out, often physically, which garnered the siblings a certain degree of notoriety for their unconventional approach to customer service.
In October 1995, the owner of a local vegetarian restaurant was sitting at the bar, enjoying his big, juicy Vortex burger, when he asked the siblings if they would be interested in buying his property in the bohemian neighborhood of Little 5 Points. They quickly negotiated a deal, made the purchase and set about the task of transforming this long-neglected hippie restaurant into a second Vortex location. The final touch was adding a 20-foot high skull-shaped facade, which would act as the entrance to the new bar. This unique “Laughing Skull” icon has since become a beloved Atlanta landmark, photographed daily by locals and tourists alike. The Little 5 Points location of The Vortex opened its doors to the public on July 21st, just three days before the opening ceremonies of Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Games.
After five years in business, the tiny original Vortex in Midtown was packed to capacity with lines out the door all day, every day. To accommodate this increase in business, the partners found a much larger space in a newly renovated loft building just a few blocks away. Quite a few regular customers told the siblings that they were sad to see their one-of-a-kind little gem relocate, even though they understood the need. But in a truly touching show of support, over the course of a single weekend in November of 1997, their most steadfast and loyal friends and patrons showed up to help the siblings make the move. It was an impromptu party disguised as a parade. All of the furniture and décor from the original Vortex was moved to its new home in a rag-tag convoy of cars, trucks and motorcycles. And that’s how the Midtown location of The Vortex ended up at 878 Peachtree Street.
From its inception, The Vortex has been honored with “Best Burger” awards by a multitude of local and national publications. Additional accolades followed over the years, including awards for “Best Overall Liquor Selection in Atlanta,” “Best Bar Food,” “Best Veggie Burger,” “Best Beer Selection,” “Best Neighborhood Bar,” and “One of the Top 50 Restaurants in Atlanta.” All of this recognition was certainly nice, but the siblings never let it go to their heads. As long as their customers were happy, they were happy. As their reputation continued to spread, the partners began to get requests to be featured on television. The Vortex has appeared on Man vs. Food, Sunday Night Football, Rachel Ray and several other “top restaurants in the country”-themed shows.
Around the time of the economic crash of 2008, Atlanta started to see an explosion of new burger restaurants, and existing restaurants began featuring their own glorified interpretations of the humble sandwich. Local celebrity chefs were predictably fawned over by the critics for their ingenuity and vision. But “reader polls” continued to prove that The Vortex had won over the hearts and minds of Atlanta residents. They weren’t fooled by the flash and marketing. The Vortex had truly become the Godfather of all Atlanta burger joints.
Twenty years have gone by since the siblings quietly opened their tiny corner bar. Since then, the two Vortex locations have gone on to become Atlanta institutions, each with a diverse, friendly staff and an exceptionally loyal clientele. The Vortex’s award-winning food, extensive selection of booze and lively, non-conformist atmosphere keep these loyal patrons coming back. As the landscape of American bars and restaurants is increasingly overtaken by corporate chain-store outlets, the refreshingly authentic, “No-Bull” attitude of this little family business seems to be what a lot of folks are looking for. Atlanta’s Red Brick Brewery produces a Laughing Skull brand beer, which is available across the southeastern United States. And the Midtown Vortex is now home to a successful underground comedy club called the Laughing Skull Lounge. The Vortex has truly become entrenched in the fabric of life in Atlanta, and has been keeping it real since 1992.