On April 20, 1992, when Michael Benoit and his brother Hank and sister Suzanne first opened the Vortex on the corner of West Peachtree and 11th streets in Midtown, the Southern California transplants had the modest notion of running a bar where they could all enjoy hanging out. To that end, the three worked as the servers and bartenders, and even sometimes cooked and cleaned up.
Some 25 years later, the simple Vortex motto — “Serving Burgers & Booze Since 1992” — still applies. With the passage of time, though, it’s become more and more apparent how much the Benoits managed to change the face of the Atlanta drinking and dining scene, latching on to the notion of food as entertainment and championing craft beer early on.
Somehow that history seems to be contained in the hypnotic spiraling eyes of the audacious 20-foot-high Laughing Skull that serves as the funhouse-like entrance to the Vortex in Little Five Points.
The Little Five Points location debuted in July 1996, a few days before the Olympic Games opened in Atlanta. And the Skull soon became a local landmark. But it was the wildly eclectic decor and irreverent attitude inside the surprisingly small space that really set it apart.
A year later, the Vortex in Midtown moved from West Peachtree and 11th Streets to its current home at 878 Peachtree St. Along with the adjacent Laughing Skull comedy club and the Little Five Points location, it constitutes the three businesses the Benoits currently own and operate.
Earlier this week, Michael Benoit, who was holed up in the office behind the Vortex in Little Five Points preparing for a week of anniversary celebrations, talked about how he and his siblings developed the blueprint for their iconic burger joint, mostly by trial and error.
“The goal in the beginning really was to have a cool bar,” Benoit said. “The burger idea was secondary, mostly because we didn’t want people to be drinking all afternoon on an empty stomach, and we didn’t want them to leave if they got hungry.”
Of course, nowadays, the sprawling menu of signature, calorically indulgent burgers such as the Classic Coronary — a half-pound sirloin patty topped with a fried egg, three slices of American cheese, and four slices of bacon — is what’s brought the Vortex to the attention of national publications and food television show producers.
“We were the originator of the unique, high-quality burger in this city,” Benoit said. “That’s blown up in recent years, to the point that having a good burger has become a big deal. We were the innovators 25 years ago, so we should get a little tip of the hat for that.”
Another big thing that makes the Vortex different is its 21-and-over-only policy, which coincides with the fact that smoking cigarettes is definitely allowed on the premises, even though none of the siblings smoke.
Over the years, the whys and wherefores of those and many other “Official Company Policies” aimed at creating an “idiot-free zone” have grown from a single paragraph to a hilariously surly sort of manifesto that fills the entire front and back covers of the menu. “Anyone who acts like a great big jerk will be denied service and asked to leave our premises” is one of the prime directives.
Asked about the perception that the Vortex just might have too many rules, or maybe even the wrong ones, Benoit grinned.
“A lot of times, I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of the Vortex. That’s the place where they’re rude to you, right?’ ” Benoit said. “And nothing could be further from the truth, because our goal has always been to have everybody play nice together. Mutual respect is the bottom line.
“We opened a bar because we wanted to have jobs where we could meet people and have a good time. So the minute we met the first person who came in with an entitled attitude and was rude to us, it was not fun, and we came up with the idiot-free policy. Basically, we’re protecting the experience for all the customers that we really love.”
Asked if there might be more Vortex locations for those well-behaved customers to visit in the coming years, Benoit laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
“We never even planned on having two locations,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is make more work for ourselves.”
878 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-875-1667. 438 Moreland Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-688-1828, thevortexatl.com.