In 1997, when we decided to relocate The Vortex from West Peachtree to Peachtree Street, people did not hesitate to tell us we were crazy. And maybe we were. After all, the stretch of Peachtree we moved to was pretty sketchy. None of today’s soaring modern condo towers or fancy shops existed. Far from it. The area had more of a post-apocalyptic, urban wasteland feel to it in those days.
For instance, just one block south of our new location, the Atlanta Cabana Hotel had represented the pinnacle of mid-century modern design when it originally 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 variety of 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 to the neighborhood, the hotel had been permanently shuttered, and sat decaying behind a rusty chain link fence.
The soviet-style brick building that we actually moved into was originally built in 1950. It served as offices for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and later the Georgia Department of Human Resources. The government eventually abandoned the site in the early ‘90s, as the area became increasingly seedy. The building remained boarded-up and blighted until it was acquired by local developer, Jim Borders. His idea was to redevelop the property into apartments with retail spaces on the bottom floor, and open in time for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. I’m sure a lot of people thought he was crazy too.
Directly behind us, Cypress Street literally had a world-wide reputation as the place to pick-up male prostitutes. The scene reminded me of the Native American legend that described a time when a warrior could walk from horizon to horizon on the backs of the buffalo without stepping on the ground. Sure, there were a lot of buffalo on the great plains, but I’m guessing there were actually more hustlers behind The Vortex. In fact, you couldn’t drive your car down the street without nudging them out of the way. If you did manage to squeeze through, these young men would openly display their sizeable packages for your inspection, day or night. They were just remarkably friendly, in a terrifying sort of way.
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 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. This place was actually pretty awesome. I’m not ashamed to admit that I stumbled out of its dark depths into the morning sunshine on more than one occasion. But eight years after we moved in to our new location, the forces of politics and gentrification finally caught up with Backstreet, and it too was replaced with a shiny new condo high-rise.
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 more redevelopment. 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 in a toast to those times, you’ll find me sitting at my bar. Come on in. Everyone is still welcome here.
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.