Disco, Blues and Booze: Downtown Memphis Rocks the Nightlife

By Sally Walker Davies, Memphis Local Expert

Is it redundant to talk about nightlife in Memphis , when the city is home to Beale Street? When it comes to an ultimate nightlife district, Beale is only second to New Orleans' Bourbon Street. But in downtown Memphis, there are plenty of options - on and off Beale - to satisfy the creatures of the night.

Our list of our favorite downtown nightspots covers dance clubs and discos, dark, interesting bars filled with interesting (and sometimes dark and mysterious) people; it also covers two hotel bar must-hits – which we think is pretty unusual in the 'best nightlife' category. Or maybe being a Memphian, I just have a really high expectation of a hotel bar. But I digress.

Beale Street is definitely the spot to start or finish your evening, depending on how adventurous you're feeling. With a killer house band cranking out the blues at B.B.. King's, the three-story dance palace Club 152 the spot for dancing the night away, and the drinking goats at Silky O'Sullivan's, Beale is full of options.

But beyond Beale, from South Main to Victorian Village, there's more nightlife to discover. The spirited Mollie Fontaine is perhaps our favorite spot of all - with its varied crowd, dark spaces for canoodling, and musical variety. The historic Peabody Hotel and the chic Madison Hotel both offer hotel bars worth checking out; the Madison's rooftop lounge is sleek, contemporary and boasts an amazing river view, while the lush Peabody Lobby Bar is an oasis of elegance.

To really get a feel for Memphis' best nightlife, hit these ten spots. If nothing else, you'll discover the real Memphis.

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 dueling piano show.

9. The Silly Goose Spirit Lounge
Photo courtesy of Silly Goose Spirits Lounge

Silly Goose is really more of a hip bar with late night dancing Thursday - Saturday nights, and the occasional themed parties, but definitely worth the visit regardless of what's happening. With its dark, chic interior - think men's club (as in a club for men, not that other kind of men's club) meets upscale bar - the space transforms from an after-work drinks and appetizers hangout for young professionals into a late-night dance fest on the weekends. By the way - weekends do include Thursday as far as we're concerned. Just sayin'. On Thursday nights during the summer, the Goose tends to be the after-party spot following the Peabody rooftop party.

8. B.B. King's Blues Club
Photo courtesy of B.B. King's Memphis

In the ranks of Memphis's most famous nightspots, B.B.'s is one of those rare places that you must visit if you spend any time in the city at all. Featuring an amazing nightly repertoire of blues, along with great food and cold beer, the bar is a popular destination for tourists. The house band is incredible, and count us as the most pleasantly surprised of locals to say that. We were expecting a tourist trap, and discovered a real hometown treasure. A lot of young blues artists find their way to this stage, which we have to point out is nothing like the New York version. However, when word gets around that the man himself is in town (with Lucille), locals know exactly where to head. It doesn't happen often anymore, but it is always a treat.

7. 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.

6. 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 we 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.

5. 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.

4. Alfred's On Beale
Photo courtesy of Alfred's On Beale

Located in the heart of Memphis's nightlife scene (the corner of Third and Beale), Alfred's is one of those places that you need to stop in if you plan on telling people you visited Memphis. Known for its live music, Alfred's offers one of the best cover bands you can dance to on Friday & Saturday nights; Kevin and Bethany Paige serve up a little bit of everything in their performances, and they perform from 10 pm - 2 am. A D.J.takes over for the after-hours crowd. Weather permitting, the upstairs outdoor patio is a bit mellower prior to the dance club scene, with acoustic guitarist Jim Wilson usually setting up in one corner on weekend nights.

3. 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.

2. Club 152
Photo courtesy of http://www.scootutopia.com

If there's a must-experience dance club in Memphis, Club 152 may just be it. With three floors of dance space, each with its own vibe, there's virtually something for every dance taste. The first floor offers either live music or DJs spinning true dance tracks from the 70's through today; depending on the night, live music starts the evening and then the DJ steps in for the late night crowd. The first floor is open nightly, while the other two floors are open on Friday and Saturday nights only. Floor two focuses on mainstream hip hop and old school jams, and later in the evening is truly crunk; the vibe is dark, hip lounge with an all-female staff. Floor three is funk-a-licious, no-holds-barred fun, with giant video screens and mirrored walls, and this is where inhibitions (and sometimes jaws) drop.

1. 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-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.