(Bar) Hop to It: The Best Drinks in Memphis
By Sally Walker Davies
Memphis Local Expert
Yes, it's true: Yours truly gets paid to check out the best places to grab a drink in Memphis. And yes, everyone in town wants to be me - or at least get invited to come along. And since drinking is never something one should do by oneself, my friends and I are happy to share our favorite bars with you - hopefully that will help to assuage your jealousy.
While Beale Street may be the epicenter of partying in Memphis, and is a must-explore drinking destination of its own, there's just one Beale bar that made our list this time - and that's not because others aren't as worthy. But to get a real feel for this city and it's people, for its vibe and its music, one needs to venture out all over town.
Our list of the 10 Best Bars in Memphis takes you from Beale Street's Silky O'Sullivan's, where Silky's legend - and pet goats - hold sway, to the swanky lounge at the historic Peabody Hotel, to the Cooper Young neighborhood and its incredibly varied nightlife scene.
There's a real (friendly) competition going on in Memphis right now, between downtown's Beale establishments and other bars, with Midtown and its Cooper Young neighborhood. Both are filled with bars, both offer nightlife districts, both offer live music, as well as patrons of every age, race, and orientation. The good news about this rivalry is that the bar-hopper wins every time, no matter where he or she chooses to hop.
This funky little spot in Cooper Young opened in 2013 with little fanfare but loads of fans; chef Karen Carrier's latest nightspot is fresh and hip and a great addition to the neighborhood nightlife scene. Decorated with treasures from around the world - and plenty of tag sale chic - DKDC offers small plates with an international flair and yummy libations with a guaranteed kick. The crowd is slightly hipster but that shouldn't scare off you traditional types, as the setting is comfortably eclectic. Cocktails are served up in an array of containers, from Mason jars to juice glasses, and include twists on tradition - like a blackberry julep. (901-272-0830)
Young Avenue Deli
Don't be thrown by the name; this cavernous space is indeed a deli (and a tasty one, at that) but it also doubles as a live music must-hit for Memphians. While the atmosphere of Young Avenue screams ROCK!, there's a surprisingly eclectic lineup of local and regional bands booked here, making Young Avenue one of the city's best live music venues. The beer list is expansive, with what just might be the longest beer menu in town, a mix of the most exotic beers on tap and in a bottle or can - and you can indeed order a Bud Light or something of that ilk, but why would you, when you can have a Ghost River Wee Heavy or a Rogue Shakespeare Oatmeal Stout? When the band's on break, throw a few darts or shoot some pool - or simply take in the crowd - an always interesting collection of locals. (901-278-0034)
Local on the Square
With exposed brick walls, two levels of lounging and dinging, and a corner spot in Overton Square, Local on the Square should easily become as popular as its older sibling - downtown's Local Gastropub. Upstairs, the feel is more lounge than restaurant, with plenty of cushy chairs and couches on which to perch while solving the problems of the world, and a cool half-u bar makes the space feel open and the people-watching easy. Crafty cocktails include a Velvet Elvis, with locally-branded 901 vodka (Justin Timberlake's vodka label),lavendar syrup, champagne and orange; the local punch bowl is a seasonally-inspired concoction which serves 4-6. (901-473-5973)
Alchemy is one of those rare combinations of excellent restaurant with a hopping bar - a late-night spot in the Cooper-Young neighborhood with a scene that includes everything - young singles, older couples, all races, all economic backgrounds. The bartenders are really on it - rarely do you go for more than a few minutes without a check-in from one, if you are lucky enough to grab a seat at the huge U-shaped bar. And if you're not, never fear - there are small tables and a few comfy couches to lounge on, although check with the hostess to be sure those seats are available, they are sometimes reserved. The drink menu is inventive and Memphis-themed, and the restaurant's signature small plates can be ordered at any seat. There's loads of movement from patrons going to tables, people bar hopping in Cooper-Young, and people simply walking around, checking out the scene -- so Alchemy feels like it's constantly in motion. (901-726-4444)
The next door and more casual neighbor of Chef Ryan Trimm's Sweetgrass is a bar/casual eatery that rocks during the NFL and NBA seasons - but we hesitate to call it a sports bar; let's just say this is a more upscale yet casual bar that just happens to host great sporting event parties. Next Door feels pub-y, with a long bar, almost the length of the entire space - and a mix of high top and conventional tables which can be thrown together to accommodate larger groups. The wine and beer offerings are fantastic (we love any bar that offers an Albarino as a matter of course), with a great selection of imported bottled beer and regional brews on tap. ((901) 278-0278)
Twilight Sky Terrace
The newest entry in the downtown hotel rooftop scene, Twilight is a super-chic space with commanding views of the Mississippi. Perched atop the boutique Madison Hotel, the refurbished rooftop space now includes comfy seating for lounging, sweeps of canvas for shielding the sun, and a fire pit for chilly evenings (as well as some cozy throws under which to snuggle). A short list of specialty cocktails, plus an extensive beer and wine list are the main attractions, and there's a small menu for evening bites, and on Saturdays and Sundays, breakfast will be served from 6:00 a.m. - 10:30 a.m. (901-333-1200)
Peabody Lobby Bar
The historic Peabody Hotel is widely regarded as the place to stay when you're visiting Memphis; the grand hotel is elegant and sophisticated, with a huge two-story lobby featuring marble columns and rich decor. Indeed, the hotel's lobby fountain, where its famous resident ducks spend a good portion of their day, is one of the area's "must sees." But for an adults-only experience, wait until the ducks parade out to their rooftop quarters for the evening, which happens every night at 5 p.m. Once the crowds (and kids) clear out, the Lobby Bar becomes a swank, upscale spot to grab a drink. The bar is one of the best places in town to rub shoulders with the Memphis elite, and celebrities and sports figures when they are in town - and to enjoy a good martini while piano music drifts in the background. (901-529-4000)
Mollie Fontaine Lounge
When they say food / spirits on the Mollie Fontaine Web site, spirits has a double meaning - as in, the kind your drink and the kind who haunt old, Victorian homes. Mollie Fontaine is housed in a gorgeous Victorian mansion, stuffed with a combination of retro and vintage-y chic decor - overstuffed loungers, funky little chairs, and super-cool lighting, from chandeliers to multi-hued, single Edison bulbs. Sometimes, a pro sits at the old piano in the first floor front parlor - sometimes a customer jumps on - not always a good thing - and sometimes there's a DJ mixing it up. There's a full bar, and very often anything wet and cold comes straight out of a cooler tucked behind the bar. Since the lounge is owned by Karen Carrier of The Beauty Shop fame, the small plates served up are always something scrumptious - Fontaine sliders with arugula and gruyere, crispy duck rice rolls, and avocado tempura are all part of the inventive fare, and there's always a creme brulee of the day to tempt the sweet tooth. (901-524-1886)
Babalu Tacos & Tapas
Babalus Tacos & Tapas is a Southern mini-chain, if you will; the original is in Jackson, MS, the Memphis location in Overton Square was restaurant dos, and Birmingham gets numero tres. The food is super-fresh, the ambiance rocking, and the crafty cocktails sure to please. Located in a cavernous space in the Overton Square district of Midtown, Babalu is basically one giant room with a long, long bar -- and the bar opens to the back, right to the outdoor patio where there are lounging couches and cocktail tables. The menu offers a variety of food made to share -- from a killer bacon cheeseburger with white cheddar, roasted tomatoes and chipotle aioli on a sweet sourdough bun (our new favorite burger in town, bar none) to gourmet tacos and Spanish-style tapas (potatas bravas!). There's also the occasional dash of Southern cooking -- garlic shrimp and grits, or tamales from the Mississippi Delta to name a couple. The drink list is extensive and fabulous, with a huge list of tequilas and a bunch of fun cocktails -- there are seasonal options, as well. ((901) 274-0100)
Earnestine & Hazel's
This gritty club -- a former bordello and hotel, is the local go-to for late night drinks and an alcohol-absorbing Soul Burger -- a tasty concoction of greasy burger with onions that helps one regain one's sobriety at the end of the evening. Whenever there is a celeb in town - quite often, actually- E&H is always on the list, which makes for fun people watching. And people watching is fun regardless, with an always-evolving mix of young hispters, East Memphis socialites, and young med students. The two-story club offers a small dance floor / space for the bad, counter seating and a scattering of tables on the first floor, with the second floor rooms being a darker, funkier place to hang -- but conversation can flow easier upstairs. (901-523-9754)
About Sally Walker Davies
Sally Walker Davies is enchanted by Memphis' music, history, and characters. From the artsy South Main Historic District to the grittiness of her favorite live music clubs to the sophisticated style of the eastern edge of the city, there’s a Memphis for every mood, and she loves every part of it. Walker Davies is an experienced broadcast, print, and online journalist focusing on travel, writing for the Commercial Appeal, AOL Travel, BudgetTravel.com, and The Tennessean. She is the author of Tennessee: An Explorer’s Guide and the Elvis-themed travel app King Me: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Royalty Tour.
Read more about Sally Walker Davies here.