Editor’s Note: Nightlifer is a periodic column focused on bars and late-night entertainment in the Alamo City.
San Antonio’s Medical Center isn’t the first place most people think of when it comes to nightlife. If you’re in the area, there’s a good chance it’s for work. Or, more likely, you’re there to see a specialist to help you survive our region’s never-ending allergy season.
But the Medical Center also offers cures that don’t require a prescription. They’re available in places where you can pick your poison and quell your pain — the area’s plentiful dive bars.
Dives are a special breed, where cheap wells, strange specialty drinks, pool tables and crowds of regulars can make for a good time. In the Medical Center, the odd hours of healthcare professionals also add an interesting twist — some watering hole open as early as 7 a.m.
Here are a few Medical Center dives that get it right, day or night:
5562 Fredericksburg Road
7 a.m.-2 a.m.
At 3 p.m. on a Thursday, Highlander Bar was by far the busiest Medical Center bar I visited. With plenty of daylight, a convivial vibe and $3 shot specials, patrons apparently find it easy to sit a while. The place is charmingly rustic too, with a unique diamond-shaped bar top offering room for a dozen or so regulars. The crowd was diverse: old men in cowboy hats rubbed elbows with young women in scrubs as they downed their tallboys. I ordered my favorite throwback — an Amaretto Sour topped with a sticky-sweet maraschino cherry — and headed out to the large, shaded patio. While there, I learned people at Highlander are friendly, so don’t expect to drink alone. A kind stranger sent me a Mexican Candy shot, a San Antonio standard made with tequila, watermelon pucker and Tabasco.
Oak Hills Tavern
7920 Fredericksburg Road
3 p.m.-2 a.m.
Self-described as the “Best damn dive bar in SA,” Oak Hills Tavern is just down the street from Highlander and offers a smaller crowd and plenty of patio. A friendly female bartender greeted me as I walked in, letting me know the kitchen had just opened and that their taps were on special for happy hour. Groups of coworkers in scrubs sipped on specialty tavern drinks like the Peach Tea Lemonade and Hurricane Chelsea. The place’s low ceilings and shuffleboard, darts and a pool table gave it a lounge-y feel. It was easy to imagine that, with the right friends around, Oak Hills’ karaoke Tuesdays could make for a rowdy weekday diversion.
5500 Babcock Road #117
2 p.m.-2 a.m.
“It feels like that bar your weird tío loves,” a friend told me about Tonic Bar, and she wasn’t wrong. Tonic is dark and dingy with a good dose of wood paneling. Definitely a place you go when you want to mistake day for night and drink alone to drown your sorrows. Wells are $2.75 during happy hour, so you can enjoy several rounds of your favorite libation on a budget. Patrons sat alone, drinking quietly, but the friendly bartender polished glassware while singing along to Childish Gambino, so not all seemed lost. Plus, gin was on special, so my go-to well, a gin and soda, only set me back $2.
5450 Babcock Road #140
2 p.m.-2 a.m.
I found The Drinkery inside a nondescript shopping center after spotting two men in scrubs drinking tiny glasses of wine at patio tables out front. Inside, the crowd was friendly, chatting it up with each other and the bartenders. The Texas Rangers game was on, and baseball-capped fans cheered and booed as a DJ tested sound equipment in the corner. On the day of my visit, New Amsterdam Gin was on special for $2.50, so I decided on a martini with olives. My bartender told me she had just dropped the olive jar. Dry with a twist sounded fine instead, but apparently at The Drinkery that means with a splash of Sprite and grenadine. But I wasn’t as mad about it as I thought I would be. Turns out, a spoonful of sugar does make the medicine go down in the most delightful way.
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