When the Current last covered Betty’s Battalion nearly eight years ago, the Government Hill bar was a sad-sack casualty of Fort Sam’s post-9/11 spate of gate closings. That year, the “Camo Curtain” fell over the North New Braunfels gate, shuttering many of the neighborhood’s venerable Vietnam-era bars and shops. Betty Ford, the bar’s proprietress and a local retoxification luminary, suffered a “nearly 100 percent” drop in her business as a result.
The intervening time, however, has been good to Betty’s. Business has steadily picked up, driven mostly by the base’s constant stream of new soldiers. The emblems of various Army and Navy units are painted invitingly on the bar’s hull-gray façade, and a new mural by local artist Albert Alvarez pays tribute to the Battalion’s most cherished and most abundant clientele demographic — the combat medic.
Over the years, the bar has sat pickling in its own juices, getting cozier — and accidentally hipper — with age. Midtown-based seedsters (my own personal portmanteau of “seedy” and “hipsters;” what Humphrey Bogart might have referred to as “college types,” meaning “folks that say ‘fuck’ in front of the kids”) fond of Bar America’s effortless vogue will find at Betty’s that same atmosphere of casual awesomeness. The drinks are similarly cheap ($2 bottles of Stella and Newcastle) and varied (a selection ranging from Fat Tire to Bud Light), and Ford is as genial and chatty as the proprietor of that Southtown institution is gruff and curt.
Likewise, Bar America’s esteemed jukebox has a worthy rival at Betty’s. Toby Keith 45s crowd in with Queen and all manner of Tejano bands. Where patio-less Bar America will likely suffer when the city’s new smoking ban takes effect, Betty’s has its bases comfortably covered: Twinkling Christmas lights bedazzle Betty’s intimate backyard, dotted with picnic tables and quiet nooks under old trees. It’s about as idyllic a spot as you’re likely to find at any bar in the city.
Sometimes, like this past Saturday night, the bar is devoid of its usual crowd of high-and-tight haircuts (they’re off at war-practice at Camp Bullis), and Betty’s is instead speckled with a healthy mix of Hill regulars, vets, and longhairs. Still, even when the Battalion is brimming with its namesake warriors, Ford says the mix of military and civilian is always friendly and convivial.
This night, the Battalion’s teensy stage was empty of howling karaoke-ers, its positively ancient television set and solitary microphone stand looking lonely and neglected among the draping flags and low-slung Miller Time blimps from some long-abandoned marketing campaign. Curling photos cover most of the wall space at Betty’s, an ode to the past 25 years of comings and goings, deployments and retirements. Messages scrawled to comrades forgotten and gone go unnoticed, as patrons nestle into a grandma’s couch with $4 pitchers of Miller Lite (served without glasses — you’re supposed to drink it from the pitcher).
Betty’s is that rare gem, a social drinker’s dreamscape: totally unspoiled, accidental, and unaware of its lazy wonderfulness.
1524 E Grayson, (210) 227-9255, bettysbn.com
Vibe: James Jonesian weekend pass getaway for the reveille set meets comfy grandpa bar in sweet, wood-paneled decay.
Best Use: A night in Betty’s starry backyard tossing horseshoes and sipping cool, cheap drinks.
Prices: Bottles $2 / 32 oz draft pitchers (Miller Lite, occasionally Shiner Bock) $4 / No liquor.