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For those who venture through the skull’s mouth and into the Vortex, an alternate universe awaits. On the other side of the skull’s jaws, it’s as if the dimly-lit den was swept up by a tornado, landing in a surreal other world. Knickknacks and rusty beer cans are haphazardly strewn about, hanging from every square inch of brick wall. A skeleton mounted on a motorcycle dangles from the ceiling. A spinning barbershop pole twirls hypnotically next to a giant boar’s head. Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” pervades eerily through the hum and bumble of conversation. With 360 degrees of hodgepodge décor, it’s easy to forget the main attraction: Atlanta’s best burger.

“Keeping it real since 1992,” the Vortex Bar and Grill has become an establishment for Atlantans in search of a fine burger and a beer – served with a side of attitude. The giant skull façade of the Little Five Points location has become something of a landmark, and the restaurant has been honored by local and national publications with a handful of awards and has been featured on popular TV shows like “Man v. Food” and “Rachael Ray’s Tasty Travels.”

When siblings Michael, Hank and Suzanne Benoit opened the original Vortex in Midtown, they didn’t anticipate that it would become an alpha dog of Atlanta burger joints. They created the Vortex with dreams of becoming a cozy neighborhood bar, “a secret hideout for serious drinkers.” To keep their customers from going hungry, they decided to serve burgers as well. The Vortex Burger – a juicy, back-to-basics half-pound of premium ground sirloin – was born.

Four years later, the Benoits opened a second location in Little Five Points. Then in 1997, they relocated their Midtown location to Peachtree Street to accommodate growing crowds, where it remains today. To aid in the transition, faithful customers helped the owners with the move, caravanning the few blocks down the road with chairs, tables and tchotchkes galore, a true testament to the allegiance of their fan base.

Soon after the restaurant’s conception, the owners adopted their trademark unconventional approach to customer service. They declared the bar an “Official Idiot-Free Zone,” a no-tolerance policy for difficult customers, garnering the eatery some notoriety for its unusual business strategy.

The Vortex is not a place for the nitpicky and whining often falls on deaf ears. In 2005, after the passing of the Georgia Smoke-Free Air act that outlawed smoking in restaurants, the Vortex became on adult-only environment, only admitting customers over the age of 18. But throughout the restaurant’s evolution over the past 20 years, its rough-around-the-edges approach has earned the restaurant a loyal following that can’t seem to get enough.

“The Vortex was doing big, bad burgers way before burgers became cool again,” Todd Brock, Serious Eats blogger and “professional burger eater” explains. “And that’s probably why I still love the place so much … kind of like the way you never get over your first crush.”

It’s hard to describe the type of person the Vortex attracts. The crowd is much like the restaurant itself: eclectic, an unlikely combination of all things ordinary and bizarre. In one corner, a hipster couple speaks intimately. At another table, a group of jeans-and-tee-shirt guys scarf down the last of their meal. At the bar, a pair of bikers in leather jackets and boots order two bottles of Laughing Skull Amber Ale – Atlanta’s very own brew. Tattooed twenty-something waitresses dart about, weaving through tables and barstools. In the corner, a woman lights a cigarette and exhales into the busy air.

If you think the atmosphere is a lot to soak in, look at the menu. It offers an array of burgers from the Plain Ol’ Original Vortex to the Triple Coronary Bypass, which consists of three burger patties, three fried eggs, fourteen slices of American cheese and ten slices of bacon packed between two grilled cheese sandwiches. A variety of options exists between the two extremes, from the Hawaiian Yokohama Mama to the Fat Elvis, slathered with peanut butter, bacon and fried bananas. Appetizers range from bar food classics like nachos and fries to fried pickles and beer-battered, deep fried cheddar cheese balls. Needless to say, the menu is not for the faint of heart.

In the past decade, a series of boutique bar food pubs have popped up around Atlanta. But the Vortex is not a trend; it’s an establishment. It occupies a unique niche that can neither be replaced nor replicated. It exists in a league of its own.

“It’s easy to hate on the Vortex for the giant skull, the tattooed-and-pierced wait staff, the tongue-in-cheek menu ‘rules’ and the extreme burgers,” Brock said. “But burgers like the Elvis and the Double Bypass actually predate both the burger boom of the later 2000s and the more recent ‘Man v. Food’ gluttony-glorification era.”

At the end of the day, behind the greasy, gritty accouterments, the Vortex serves a quality, no bulls–t burger. Other burger joints may have their 15 minutes, but the Vortex is here to stay.

– By Annelise Alexander 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons