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BURGERS, BOOZE & BASTARDS

The Vortex Blog

All posts by Michael Benoit

CALL THE BABYSITTER

When exactly did the entire world become “family-friendly?” I guess I missed that meeting. When I was growing up it was common knowledge that NOT every place was appropriate for children. That’s why babysitters became a thing. When my siblings and I were kids (about a million years ago), on the rare occasions we did go out with our parents it was always treated as a lesson on being well-behaved in public. At some point between then and now, the parental populous has started dragging the kiddies with them everywhere they go. And today, restaurants have largely become just another playground. Maybe I’m an old crank, but when I’m plunking down some serious scratch to enjoy a nice meal, I really don’t want a shrieking little hell-demon squawking in my ear hole.

When Georgia passed the “Smoke-Free Air Act of 2005,” they forced every restaurant in the state to choose between eliminating either smoking or children. Since The Vortex operated primarily as a “bar,” the choice was easy. But even though this change was initiated by a government mandate, our “over 21” policy was still met with a certain amount of outrage. How dare we discriminate against children. How dare we turn away families. How dare we!

Recently, I’ve been reading articles about other restaurants that have made the business decision to restrict children without any type of governmental decree at all. I’m always amazed at how polarizing this decision can be. The comment sections are absolutely brutal. People who appreciate these policies are called “child-haters.” People who complain about these policies are called “out-of-touch petty tyrants.” The bottom line is these restaurant operators are just trying to please their specific target market. It’s amazing how outraged people can become over, well, basically nothing.

I don’t have anything against children. Heck, I used to be (a particularly adorable) one myself. And I don’t think it would be right to blame the runny-nosed moppets for a lack of parental supervision. But lately, I seem to encounter more and more oblivious moms and dads every time I go out. You know the type – they let their little booger-eaters run wild in restaurants without any consideration for others. No one’s saying parenting is easy, but just because you don’t feel like keeping an eye on your own spawn, restaurant employees do not automatically become the babysitter– no matter how many cocktails you’ve had.

This issue should not be divisive. There are a lot of folks who appreciate the option to patronize places designed for grown-ups. And many of those same people have kids of their own. In fact, quite a lot of them do. So I’m proud to offer a spot where parents and non-parents alike can get together for some good, old-fashioned “adults-only” fun. Sometimes it’s good to be bad. At The Vortex, we’re here to help. So you’d better call the babysitter, ‘cause you’re probably gonna be late.

A TREASURE TROVE OF IDIOCY

When did people get so confused about restaurants? Restaurants are simple. They are businesses. They are designed to offer a specific concept, theme or style of food to the public. Potential customers can then decide whether or not to patronize a specific restaurant if what is being offered suits their personal tastes. Simple, right? Not anymore it isn’t. Entitlement is strong in the 21st century.

These days, certain people choose to ignore what a restaurant is actually offering, and instead will just go in and start barking orders. Most operators do their best to accommodate reasonable requests, but “reasonable” has become a highly subjective term. Many people now seem to think that “reasonable” means whatever random, idiotic thought pops into their head. And if their arbitrary demands are not met, then threats of posting bad reviews on social media will ensue. To be clear, these demanding customers are ignorant pricks, but sadly they seem to be growing in number.

The Vortex is an age-restricted bar, but we encounter people demanding that their toddlers be allowed in all the time. And they get mad, really mad when they’re denied access. From time to time, someone will even come in demanding that we prepare a strictly vegan meal – at our burger joint. That’s like going to a vegetarian restaurant and demanding a steak. But I’m sure people do that, too. Irrational demands like these are selfish and tactless, yet restaurant operators are forced to deal with them every day.

I’m not talking about corporate chain operations that sell food-like products to the masses in generic settings. Their goal has always been to appease the lowest common denominator. I’m talking about independent, small-businesses that operate on slim profit margins to offer truly unique dining experiences. Anyone who wants these places to keep existing in the world should not expect them to spend time and money trying to please every single person on the planet. It can’t be done.

Naive new operators will often try to please everyone, especially the self-entitled jerks who bark the loudest. But by doing so they may be diminishing the authenticity of the experience for people who appreciate what they actually ARE offering. I know it can be difficult to stand by your convictions with a serious investment on the line. But staying true to yourself is a major component of becoming successful. So be strong, and ignore the disgruntled bullies. Nowadays most people realize that “one-star” reviews are a treasure trove of idiocy written by pathetic whiners and crybabies. So ultimately, my advice to young entrepreneurs is simple: If you are passionate about your creative vision, don’t let the bastards ruin it.

JUST STROKE IT

Several years ago, a good customer of The Vortex ​presented us with a carved wooden phallus, slightly over a foot tall, that he had purchased in Thailand. He explained that if we displayed it near our front door​ it would help “attract money and bring success.” We thanked him for his thoughtfulness and immediately placed it among the liquor bottles behind our bar. Soon after, we were contacted by the Travel Channel, and featured on “Man vs. Food.” That television exposure undeniably helped our business. So, was this whole chain of events purely coincidental? I didn’t think so.

In fact, I was so convinced of the power contained in this wooden wang, I made it a personal mission to help spread the good fortune to our loyal patrons. I contacted an old artist friend, and commissioned a bigger, better version of the magical phallus. On Easter Sunday of 2014, the new 3-foot high piece of sculpted mahogany splendor known as the #DickOfDestiny was installed in the Midtown Vortex. Since that time, hundreds (maybe thousands) of customers have given our big wooden dick a good rub, and made a wish or said a little personal prayer. Does it work? Many people swear that it does.

Imagery of the phallus has been prevalent and widespread throughout the world since the beginning of recorded history. Found within the art and religious practices of many cultures, the phallus is symbolic of strength, fertility, good fortune, prosperity, and protection. So next time you visit the Midtown Vortex, just stroke our big dick and see what happens. The universe is a mystery. What have you got to lose?

A TASTY EFFECT

A million years ago when I was a kid, my siblings and I gave our parents a fancy barbecue grill for Christmas. While skeptical at first, my father grew to love cooking on it. Our memories of him in the backyard cheerfully cooking thick, juicy burgers over an open flame must have been resonating in our collective consciousness when we opened The Vortex​. Back in those days there just weren’t many places to get great burgers in Atlanta, so we decided that serving a flame-grilled burger, just like the ones our dad used to make for us, would be a good move. As it turns out, we were right.

Now twenty-three years later there seems to be an over-abundance of burger offerings in our city. Many of the new places use a flat-top griddle (or frying pan) as their chosen cooking method. It’s easy to understand why. it’s faster and easier, and picking a “cooking temperature” is generally not allowed. It streamlines the process. Both flame-grilling and pan-frying rely on the “Maillard Effect” for creating much of the flavor. This is a complex series of reactions between amino acids and reducing sugars in the meat, in which hundreds of different compounds are created. While technical, it is a very tasty effect. But the addition of that distinctly “charred” flavor-profile can only be attained through the use of fire.

As an experiment, we took a Vortex burger patty and slapped it on our flat-top griddle. Then we tasted it side-by-side with a second Vortex burger patty cooked over an open flame on our chargrill. The difference in flavor created by these two cooking methods was more subtle than I would have imagined, but it was still apparent. I can’t say one is better than the other, because of course they’re both good, just somehow different. Since we are the Godfather of Atlanta’s burger culture, and because we’ve always tried to provide our fans with a variety of tasty options, we decided to add a couple of these griddled “Old-School” burgers to our menu.

Beginning today, you can now order our “Retro Diner Burger” and “Ultimate Patty Melt.” They’re both really good, and a fun departure from our staple flame-grilled Vortex burgers. We have always believed that variety is a good thing. Some people might think that serving a pan-fried burger at The Vortex is some sort of burger-blasphemy. But if my dear pops were around today I have no doubt he’d be happy to give one a try, and I know he’d approve. After all, a tasty burger is a tasty burger regardless of how you get there.

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 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.

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.

FREE THE NIPPLE

Men are allowed to walk around barechested in public. All men. All the time. They can just whip off their shirts whenever they feel the urge, even if they’re sporting an impressive set of double-D manboobs. Women do not generally enjoy the same right. And in the few places where it’s legal for women to go topless (like New York City), they still run the risk of being arrested for indecency. Total bullshit, right? I’m not the only one who thinks so. An actual movement has grown up around this issue. It’s called, “Topfreedom.” Once a movement has a name you know it’s official.

In 2014, filmmaker Lina Esco released a movie called “Free The Nipple.” It received a rare NC-17 rating because there was a lot of chick nip in it. Why is the female nipple still taboo when gratuitous violence and bountiful man nipple are perfectly acceptable in movies? It’s not even the exposure of boobs that’s the problem. Cleavage, side-boob, under-boob, even entirely exposed breasts with pasties covering the areolas are all perfectly legal. It’s just that pernicious little lady nipple causing all the trouble.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “So what do aliens think about this situation?” Well, the spiritual leader of the Raëlian movement believes, among other things, that the human race was created thousand of years ago by scientists from outer space, and we continue to be visited by UFO’s to this day. He also thinks women face unjust censorship with regard to their upper lady bits, so he founded “GoTopless.org.” Due to the fact that American women earned the right to vote on August 26, 1920, GoTopless.org now holds their annual demonstrations across the country on the Sunday closest to this date.

So mark your calendars, defenders of freedom. This year, the official “Go Topless Day” will fall on Sunday, August 23rd. The demonstration in Atlanta will be held at 2:00 pm in Woodruff Park, downtown. According to the “Boob Map” posted on the group’s website, Atlanta city officials intend to arrest any woman who protests topless. Well, sometimes you’ve just got to take a stand for what is right, without concern for the consequences. So I’ll be there, doing my part to help free the nipple. And if I happen to end up in a jail cell full of topless women who believe in UFO’s, I will gladly accept my fate. Some things are worth fighting for.

DIRTY, SMELLY AND HOMELESS

I often do things on a whim. Like my new year’s resolution. I decided not to shave, or cut my hair, for all of 2015. Why? Mostly because I’ve never done it, and I was curious to see just how long my beard would get. Besides, it seems like a fairly low-maintenance option. I like low-maintenance. It’s also kind of ridiculous. And I like ridiculous even more. But that’s it. That’s all the thought I put into this hairy scheme. I’m just surprised how many people want to share their opinions about it with me, especially since I didn’t ask. And I don’t really care what people think. Ever. About anything.

Of course my friend Hollis has been very vocal with her opinion. She claims my ever-increasing facial hair basically amounts to self-inflicted “chick repellant.” Since I’m married to the most awesome woman in the universe, this wouldn’t matter to me, even if it were true. But I countered with the observation that I’ve received quite a few compliments from young ladies who work at The Vortex. “Of course they’re going to compliment you!” Hollis snapped back. “You sign their damn paychecks, you retard!” I suppose she could be right, although I thought sucking-up to the boss had become a lost art. 

Taking her harassment a step further (as she often does), she posted a picture of me, on my own damn Facebook page, along with the following query, “FEMALES: Michael thinks his new look is rockin’ with the chicks. I think he looks like Randy Quaid and should shave his adorable face. What do you think?” She followed-up by posting additional photos of Randy Quaid, Saddam Hussein and an obviously insane Howard Hughs wearing a diaper. The replies she got (from her followers) were the expected comparisons to Santa, Hobbits, Snow White’s dwarves, a demented Papa Smurf, Charles Manson’s happy brother and Sasquatch, along with a nice assortment of comments about me looking old, dirty, smelly and homeless.

Being a gentleman, I will not comment on the physical attributes of any of these negative posters. But I’d like to point out that a recent study conducted by the University of Western Australia unequivocally concluded that beards enhance male sexual attractiveness to females. Sure, the study was conducted mostly with monkeys, but that’s beside the point. The matter at hand is a much simpler one. When I say I’m going to do something, I do it. So on New Year’s Eve, I’ll be deciding what to do with my (then) one-year-old beard. But since my plans for retirement include starting a cult, and all the best cult leaders have awesome beards, don’t be surprised to find this hairy persona sticking around for awhile.

SADLY, NOBODY SHOT THE BITCH

Booze is great. And if you don’t think so, you’re nothing but a God-damned communist. The Founding Fathers wanted Americans to be free. Free to drink alcohol. In fact, only a couple of decades after seriously kicking some British ass, George Washington was operating the largest whiskey distillery in the United States. Thomas Jefferson regularly brewed beer, and stocked the White House with wine when he was President. John Hancock ran a liquor distributing company. Lincoln was a bartender, and owned his own tavern. The list of patriotic, booze-loving American heros goes on and on. Because freedom, that’s why.

But it never takes tyrants long to ruin a good thing. In the early 19th century, “temperance” movements began to pop up across the United States. Who supported them? Mostly religious fanatics and racists. The Klan were big supporters. They associated crime with those dirty liquored-up immigrants. Carrie Nation was also a leader in the movement. Since her husband was a drunkard, she reasoned that no one should ever be allowed to drink. Besides, God told her so. Her routine was to enter private bars, singing spirituals and praying, and then bust the joints up with a hatchet. All I know, is if some crazy bitch came into my bar swinging a hatchet, I’d shoot her in the face.

Sadly, nobody shot the bitch, and the 18th Ammendment was eventually ratified. Prohibition was the law of the land from 1920 until 1933. If this futile experiment taught us anything, it’s that anti-freedom legislation is always a bad idea. Enjoying alcohol is not immoral. Turning previously law abiding citizens into criminals with the stroke of a pen is definitely immoral. Whenever tyrannical laws are passed, they always create a profusion of unintended consequences. Prohibition cost America thousands of jobs, and much needed tax revenue as we entered the Great Depression. But even worse, instead of stopping crime as supporters claimed it would, prohibition ushered in a new era of far reaching, well-armed criminal syndicates. Violent crime increased to levels never seen in our country’s history. So thanks for the Mafia, Carrie.

Prior to the law taking effect, many wealthy Americans stockpiled alcohol, buying up the inventories of liquor retailers and wholesalers who were forced out of business by government decree. President Woodrow Wilson moved his own personal supply of booze from the White House to his home when his term was over. His successor, Warren G. Harding, transferred his large personal stash into the White House following his inauguration. Before the congressional elections of 1930, bootlegger George Cassiday reported how he had been providing hooch to members of congress since the beginning of prohibition. By his estimate, 80% of congressmen and senators were embibing. As always, if you were well connected you could simply skirt the law. The brunt of the negative impact of this legislation was suffered primarily by the working-class poor. Hmmm. Why does this all sound so familiar?