In the Heat (and Luther’s) of the night

While it might not seem so to everyone who makes the drive down Main Avenue during daylight hours, a modest-looking dance club and a decades-old eatery that was fashioned from a gas station are an important part of the small but thriving gay district in San Antonio.

Those familiar with area nightlife know otherwise, natch. The dance club, Heat, can draw up to a thousand people on some weekends, and the restaurant, Luther’s Cafe, is quickly becoming the after-hours spot of choice for those who come to Main.

A recent Friday-night trip to Heat was my first. The exterior of the building had no distinguishing characteristics beyond a pair of neon signs advertising the club’s name, which made me wonder whether the club would be any more than a large room with loud music and drinks.

Once inside though, the club’s atmosphere transformed with each doorway I passed through. Heat is divided into several areas, including a dance floor, two bars, and outdoor seating. Each of the five bars at Heat is fully stocked with liquor and includes a wine and beer selection.

Heat bartender Vikki Haines says that most of the mixed drinks she serves are “textbook” — widely known and very basic. This is a shift, she said, from the trend in recent years to order newer, flashier drinks, especially ones that were prominent in popular culture, like the Cosmo, Sex and the City’s official cocktail.

According to Haines, Bud Light with lime has also been a popular drink lately, and the bar will sometimes sell out of it by the end of the night.

After spending some time at the club, I headed across the street to Luther’s. Heat and Luther’s are both owned by Randy Cuniff, who acquired the latter last year. Cuniff has since renovated the eatery, more than doubling its space and adding indoor seating.

The other significant change he made was to extend hours, keeping Luther’s open until 3 a.m., or later, every night.

Cuniff said that the neighborhood has embraced these changes, and he is pleased with the diverse crowd that gathers at all times of the day. He said that blue-collar workers and downtown office dwellers make up most of the lunch crowd, businessmen as well as families are present for dinner, and club patrons are the main clientèle after-hours.

When I arrived at Luther’s, the karaoke I heard from a block away on my way to Heat had been reduced to the thinner tones of the same one or two people, making intermittent appearances to serenade the small crowd. There was a nice breeze in the outdoor sections that kept the July night pleasantly cool, and the overall vibe of the restaurant was very easy-going.

I ordered an item that has been on the menu at Luther’s since its early days: an Irish stew topped with chili, called redtop.

The chili flavor was present but not over-powering, and the carrots and potatoes from the stew were cooked to perfection. The chili meat lacked tenderness, though, and I would like to make a return visit to try the unadorned stew.

As clubs across the street started to close around 2 a.m., Luther’s became more crowded as people made their last stop of the night. By 2:30, the restaurant was full of people relaxing with friends and getting something — mostly burgers — to eat before heading home. •

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