Gay hiking

Luther’s Cafe celebrates 73 years in the “heart” of San Antonio’s “gay strip”

Luther’s Cafe, now on Main, has been around since 1949. To put it into perspective, that’s about two decades before the Tower of America emerged into our horizon, even before the commercial development of the River Walk such as we know him. It’s the year Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep and Billy Joel were born.

It’s been a long journey for the San Antonio College area restaurant. While people from all walks of life eat and drink at Luther’s – it’s certainly not explicitly a homosexual restaurant and he never was – his story is inseparable from the revitalization of what is now known as San Antonio’s “gay strip”. A major operator in the redevelopment is Luther’s current owner, Randy Cunniff, who also owns Heat Nightclub and Sparkey’s and Knockout bars.

Before Cunniff started opening businesses on Main Street and becoming a colorful nightlife destination, the neighborhood was very different.

The first Luther’s and the “Gay Strip”

Luther’s began cooking at the corner of Locust Street and Main Ave in 1949, and conducted operations there until around 1976. From there he moved to Main and Evergreen to colonize a 1,150 square foot former Texaco station that had recently closed. At first, Luther’s was the kind of roadside bistro where people got what was called a “red top.” They would bring their old coffee cans and have them filled half with chili and half with beef stew, then bring them home to feed their families.

You can still order a red top from Luther today, but you should probably leave your Folgers can at home. From what I was told, Luther’s yesterday looked more like a rustic truck stop. An aesthetic line that can be seen in Luther’s interior to this day as it’s covered in relics of Americana, from rusty road signs to license plates.

Prior to acquiring Luther’s in 2007, Cunniff had lived across the street from the burger joint for about eight years and had frequented the neighborhood and the restaurant for 20 years.

Before opening Heat in 2001, the area was still known for hosting gay bars, and some of Luther’s customers were later gay. But back then, everything was more spread out and low-key, Cunniff says. Being gay was something that more often than not happened behind closed doors. There were no blatant LGBTQ signifiers, there was no rainbow crosswalk on Main Street, no rainbow flags.

In 2007, a few years after Heat found success and people began to frequent the area in greater numbers, Cunniff acquired Luther’s in the old Texaco. The old restaurant had fallen into disrepair, so he gave it a makeover and built it up, doubling it in size. A few years later, after San Antonio College saw what was happening to this stretch of Main Street, seeing it turn into a more “happening” neighborhood, they made an offer on Luther and converted the land into a building. mixed-use, with student apartments and space for a new Luther’s. During construction, Cunniff temporarily operated Luther’s across the street from where Knockout stands today. In 2012, Luther’s opened in its current location.

The dining area in front of the bar has a pub atmosphere at Luther's Cafe.

The dining area in front of the bar has a pub atmosphere at Luther’s Cafe.

Mike Sutter / Staff
The Ultimate BBQ Burger includes a half pound beef patty, BBQ pulled pork, coleslaw, fried jalapeño chips and a side of fries at Luther's Cafe.

The Ultimate BBQ Burger includes a half pound beef patty, BBQ pulled pork, coleslaw, fried jalapeño chips and a side of fries at Luther’s Cafe.

Mike Sutter / Staff
Andrew Dyson turns to check out Siberian husky Zirconia on the terrace of Luther's Cafe.
Andrew Dyson turns to check out Siberian husky Zirconia on the terrace of Luther’s Cafe.
Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News
Jeff Moore (left) and Rick Ramos, right, share a joke over their meal at Luther's Cafe.
Jeff Moore (left) and Rick Ramos, right, share a joke over their meal at Luther’s Cafe.
Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Luther’s Cafe

Luther today / The post-Covid world

One thing Cunniff is adamant about is staying open late on weekends to accommodate bar traffic. Until 3 a.m., burgers, home fries, and bar snacks like crisp Southwestern spring rolls are available at the Luther’s bar. Given its walking proximity to other gay strip offerings, Cunniff designed it to be a natural destination for a post-Sparkey late-night bite.

Like any restaurant, COVID-19 has been tough on Luther’s and Cunniff, the unofficial architect of the inclusive nightlife corridor.

“Believe me, it wasn’t easy and I was scared. But, you know, I couldn’t pass up gay stripping during COVID,” shares Cunniff, who has been happy to see people venture out on a regular basis. .

A few months ago, Cunniff hired new manager Duane Adams to get the restaurant back on track. Regulars were quick to show up, Adams says, and those who had already been burned by the restaurant under various managements were quick to wish him “good luck.”

Adams, who moved here from Ohio for work, was quick to observe just how diverse the restaurant’s clientele is.

“I just noticed how Luther’s is kind of that place for everyone. Even in the gay community, so to speak. We have lesbians coming, a lot of younger and older gays, we collect all the demographic groups within our community. And then outside of that, it mixes with the straight communities,” Adams says. “Luther’s is like the heart of the Strip”.

Almost immediately after taking office, Luther successfully participated in the first Main Avenue Pride parade after a two-year hiatus related to COVID-19, and served more people than Pride 2019. Under Adams, the restaurant also put in places a new bar program. , and added events to the calendar every night of the week to attract people. The entertainment roster includes Monday movie screenings, Tuesday video game nights, Wednesday karaoke, and weekend dinner and brunch. The drag shows are led by a local queen who goes by the name “Elizabitch”, who was unavailable for comment.

Drag shows are a big draw for the entire spectrum of humanity and truly demonstrate how inclusive Luther’s space is.

Patrons run the gambit, from elderly couples who have been lunching there for years to pre-Game Heat gays, even straight guys (“no cupboard cases or low guys, Adams says) and family enjoying eggs Benedict and chicken and waffles during drag brunch.

“I get phone calls every week where people tell me they have to come to the show. And then they bring their grandma or they bring their aunt and their kids,” Adams says. “The whole family comes for the show.

Luther’s is open seven days a week. Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. Find him at 1503 N Main Avenue.