Blues, Booze and Bands: Nightlife in Memphis Has It All

Photo courtesy of Courtesy Young Avenue Deli
By Sally Walker Davies, Memphis Local Expert

Out of all the clubs and bars in Memphis, it's hard to pick just ten best – especially here in the home of Beale Street, with its open container policy, it's nightclubs and blues bars. But we're happy to take this bullet for ya, believe us. Much of the best nightlife in Memphis is downtown, between Beale Street's live music clubs, a few hotel rooftop bars, and a few of our favorite late-night spots. Midtown's two bustling neighborhoods - Cooper-Young and Overton Square - are definite contenders in the "best concentration of hip bars"  category.

Beale is the most raucous of the nightlife offerings in Memphis; in fact, little else compares to it in terms of the sheer number of people and the people watching. Our choices for the city's best night spots is a bit eclectic, indeed; whether you're looking for a dance club or dive bar, a blues hall or swank lounge, Memphis has it all. We offer a carefully vetted selection to let you explore Memphis nightlife alone or  with your friends. Here, we distill the best businesses down to a special selection of ten. These places promise a stellar experience and a real feel of the city that you just can't miss.

10. Silky O'Sullivan's
Photo courtesy of Memphis CVB

An Irish dueling piano pub with beer-loving goats? Nothing quite compares with what awaits you at Silky O'Sullivan's. Located in the heart of Memphis nightlife on Beale Street, Silky's serves up Southern pub grub and ice-cold beer in a raucous college atmosphere. After that, you'll be ready to buy a beer for the goats out on the patio, who have developed quite a taste for it and will suck the whole thing down. Silky's is also a great place to catch some local bands and later in the evening, the incredible dueling piano show.

9. Rumba Room
Photo courtesy of Michael Donohue, The Commercial Appeal

The first salsa club in the city, Rumba Room is a little bit of a love letter to Latin culture. There's a swanky bar area, a colorful mural, a menu full of Cuban and Latin-inspired appetizers, and a large dance area that pulses with a salsa beat. Primarily a DJ-driven dance club, the Rumba Room offers salsa music every Friday and Saturday night, with an occasional live band featured. Free salsa lessons are offered both evenings starting at 9:30. On Friday nights starting at 7 p.m. until salsa time and on the third Saturday of the month, the vibe changes to West Coast swing. Thursday night features a mix of hip hop, R & B and old school jams mixed by a DJ. There's no cover on Thursday nights, when the minimum age is 21; entry for salsa nights is 18 and up; ladies over 21 are free until 10 p.m., and there's a $10 cover for all others.

8. Peabody Lobby Bar
Photo courtesy of Memphis CVB

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.

7. Twilight Sky Terrace
Photo courtesy of Sally Walker Davies

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.

6. Young Avenue Deli
Photo courtesy of Courtesy 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.

5. Earnestine & Hazel's
Photo courtesy of ilovememphis

This gritty club – a former bordello and hotel, is the local go-to for late night drinks and an alcohol-soaking Soul Burger – a tasty concoction of greasy burger with onions that helps one regain one's sobriety at the end of the evening.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. Definitely some of the best people watching in all of Memphis happens at Ernestine & Hazel's, and you're very likely to run into a celeb, too.

4. Paula & Raiford's Disco
Photo courtesy of Paula & Raiford's

This is one of those spots your mom warned you about - and is, as we say in the South, a hot mess. But w love it anyway! For years, Hollywood Raiford entertained Memphians in a huge old building on Vance, just south of the central business district downtown. A light-up dance floor, a la 'Saturday Night Fever' was the main attraction, after Riaford himself. Fast forward a few years, and the club has re-opened in a two-story space on S. Second, with the same fog machine and disco ball, and Raiford himself. Daughter Paula is in the mix, too, but not much has changed - the crowd is a combination of suburban white folks, hipsters and medical students, plus a few well-heeled Memphians. The beers still come in a bucket, and cash is king here.

3. Mollie Fontaine Lounge
Photo courtesy of 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.

2. Beale Street Historic District
Photo courtesy of Lisa Buser Photography

Once the center of black-owned businesses and nightclubs, Beale became the home of the blues at the turn of the 20th century - a waypoint along the trail from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. W.C. Handy lived - and performed - here, and anyone who was anyone on the blues scene has performed in the clubs here, from Blind Mississippi Morris to B.B. King to Robert Johnson. Today, the clubs and restaurants on Beale proper still move to the beat of the blues. The FedEx Forum - home to the NBA's Grizzlies - sits just off Beale, and a variety of hotels, museums and eateries are within a short walk from the famous street. Blues fans can pay homage to W.C. Handy at the home and museum at the east end of the street, or visit the Center for Southern Folklore to explore storytelling and folk art in the South. Also nearby is the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum and Gibson Guitar Factory. In Handy Park, a small stage is home to lunchtime and weekend concerts including some unscheduled jam sessions. For the best blues music, try B.B. King's, Rum Boogie or Alfred's.

1. Overton Square
Photo courtesy of Jessica Grammer for Overton Square / Loeb Properties

In the 1970's, Overton Square was THE nightlife spot in Memphis; Beale Street was a ghost town, and there were only random bars scattered throughout town. These days, the Square is bar-hopping paradise. Craft beers at Bosco's, tacos and tapas at Babalu, killer martinis at Bari, live music and cocktails at Layfayette's Music Room- the list goes on and on - as does the party. These days, the social gauntlet in Memphis seems to be how quickly you experience one of Overton Square's restaurants: the faster you can claim to have grabbed a meal, the more social cred you have.