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Chic to Cheeks & Games for Geeks: Orlando's Best Nightlife



You love the nightlife? You got to boogie? Well, Orlando’s got plenty of haunts for the beat-driven (check out our 10Best Dance Clubs list for even more) but not everyone’s idea of nightlife involves throwing down to house or techno. For those don’t care as much about the dance floor as they do the incredible music and warm, unique atmosphere, the unparalleled Timucua Arts White House should suit.

Those who prefer more of a $2.50 PBR dance party will feel right at home in their sneakers at downtown’s “everyone’s welcome” dance hall, the Independent. Depending on which night you go, the floor may be shaking to Motown or 80s, top 40 or disco classics, but the vibe is “un-sceney” and no one will mind your ripped jeans. How about something cheekier? At the Venue, you may get a literal dose if Orlando’s resident burlesque troupe is performing. If not, you might find dance, song, experimental theater. The Venue serves it all and with a cozy bar in which to prep for your culture injection. You’ll be well prepared to take it in stride. 


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What began as a two-show project conceived by a few local theater professionals in 1997 has since grown into something so big, it recently moved from its longtime downtown digs into a brand new second-floor space on Church Street. Mad Cow â€" which runs everything from intimate cabarets to dramatic plays to musical productions â€" is an Orlando staple, well-known in the Central Florida arts community and beyond. Whether your preferences run melodic ("The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and "Dreamgirls" are among recent musical runs) or dramatic â€" from Anton Chekov to Tennessee Williams to the Bard Shakespeare himself â€" you'll likely find a Mad Cow production worthy of an evening out in the city's ever-growing downtown nightlife district.

Recommended for Best Nightlife because: Orlando has more performing arts venues than most people realize. Mad Cow Theatre is among its more intimate gems.

A.D.'s expert tip: Make it a night out. Literally, dozens of restaurants and bars are within mooing distance of Mad Cow.

Read more about Mad Cow Theatre →


Austin's Coffee


Austin's is open 24 hours, so if you like to party where you keep your off-site office, you're in luck. Hyperlocal and frequented by both college students and Wifi-powered freelancers with a need for excellent Fair Trade coffee and a pleasant working environment, Austin's provides a steady infusion of both. Add to this local art for sale on its walls, a better-than-decent collection of tabletop games and amusements and a very nice craft beer menu. Add to THAT an eclectic and affable staff, a solid menu that runs from carnivorous to dedicated vegan and live entertainment (not to mention open-mic nights where you could hear poetry, jazz, hip-hop, stand-up comedy and more. Now we've really got something, don't we? Don't come here expecting fancy. It's not. Friendly, however, they have in spades. And if you want a good panini at 3 am, you can have that, too.

Recommended for Best Nightlife because: A generally mellow neighborhood coffeehouse may seem an odd choice, but Austin's has a killer open-mic nights - most nights!

A.D.'s expert tip: Five words: mile-high peanut butter pie. Don't say we didn't warn you.

Read more about Austin's Coffee →




An Orlando fixture since 1991, The SAK Comedy Lab features a variety of nationally and internationally recognized comedians. The SAK Comedy Lab is all about improv, and they do it well. One of Orlando's most popular comedy clubs, they recently relocated to the trendy CityArts Factory, in the heart of downtown. The SAK Comedy Lab brings different themes to different nights, including the popular improv competition "Duel of Fools" (Thursday through Saturday) and Saturday's late-night "Early Show." For those wanting to pursue the trade or just bring some A-game to the water cooler, classes and workshops - check their site or call for more details. Casual attire is suggested, as are reservations.

Recommended for Best Nightlife because: Because laughter is universal and SAK Comedy Lab's performers are edgy enough for the grown-ups, still cool for kids.

A.D.'s expert tip: The Comedy Lab offers discounts for groups of 15 or more. Call the Group Sales Department to book your group tickets.

Read more about SAK Comedy Lab →


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Parliament House


No one, whether tourist or local, would deny that the look of the Parliament House complex has seen better days (after all this groundbreaking gay resort had its inaugural year in the 1970s) but when they call the place "dirty" and "trashy," they're saying it with love. Usually. Whether they're hosting celebs like Chaka Khan, the Miss Gay Orlando pageant or the Lady Gaga concert after party, the atmosphere is always festive. There is on-site lodging, but you don't have to stay the night. Come for dancing, drag or an afternoon by the pool. Parliament House cuts a swath through the gay demographic and everyone, young and old, feels right at home.

Recommended for Best Nightlife because: Parliament House could be declared a National Historic Gay Landmark. It's worth a visit just for that.

A.D.'s expert tip: PH is not merely very gay-friendly, it's very gay AND very friendly, which means as long as you're comfortable amid the culture (which can get a little raucous) come on in.

Read more about Parliament House →


The Imperial at Washburn Imports (Orlando)
Photo courtesy of The Imperial Wine Bar & Beer Garden


Located amid Orange Avenue's hip strip of Ivanhoe Village, the Imperial Wine Bar & Beer Garden should really be on everyone's list. Why? If you've ever pondered the potential joys of having a bar inside your favorite store, you won't ask. This unique haunt, nestled inside Washburn Imports (a phenomenal home furnishings showcase with pieces from the far-flung corners of the world) seems decorated for Bacchus himself. And yes, everything is for sale. Pull up a stool fashioned from centuries-old railroad ties or some such thing and enjoy the wine and microbrews. What's more, the Imperial's full menu provides excellent pairings for hungry patrons. And let's face it: If you're going take anything home against your better judgment while under the influence, it may as well be a gorgeous, $1,500 reclaimed-wood bookcase.

Recommended for Best Nightlife because: Wines and beers here number 40+ each. Add to that elevated eats, live music and a lush atmosphere you'll want to take home (and can!).

A.D.'s expert tip: Washburn Imports' sister store/drinking emporium, the Imperial Sanford, boasts a FULL LIQUOR BAR and some pretty expert mixologists. Check it out!

Read more about The Imperial at Washburn Imports (Orlando) →




Vintage rock to top 40, indie to 80s new wave, the Independent Bar hits that sweet spot between dance club and dive bar, a place where patrons are welcome to dress to impress or roll in in Chucks and ripped jeans. Seriously, man, no one's looking, relax. Multiple bars make getting drinks a non-issue and a friendly atmosphere makes for a relaxing, no-stress night of dancing and people-watching; patrons might be yuppies or rockers, goths or indie hipsters, it really is that eclectic. In fact, it's even 18+. Special nights like Wednesday night "Mac & Cheese" (DJ Mac spins the cheesiest mix of '90s tracks) are ever-evolving, but always indicative of the venue's convivial vibe.

Recommended for Best Nightlife because: The Independent places "10Best" in multiple categories because it hits that sweet spot where you just want to dance and don't care who's watching.

A.D.'s expert tip: Drink specials and cheap beer ($3 PBRs and rum wells on Mac & Cheese night, for example) are essentially a given.

Read more about Independent Bar →


Timucua Arts White House


What happens when a world-class musician converts his beautiful downtown Orlando home into an amazingly intimate performance space? Find out at the Timucua Arts White House, a gorgeous venue that hosts musicians and artists from all over the world in, well â€" a living room. What's more, often these exhibits and performances come free of charge! This is a special venue, an exceptionally unique performance space that really showcases the incredible artistic reach of the Orlando community. Bring a dish or a bottle of wine to share and spend the evening amid the intimacy and warmth of the Timucua Arts White House.

Recommended for Best Nightlife because: Timucua is a venue unlike any other. It's a jazz club in your best friend's living room. It's a must-do.

A.D.'s expert tip: Get on the mailing list for a head's up on the well-known international, national and local talent on tap.

Read more about Timucua Arts White House →


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Mills 50


Serving up drinks and live music to Orlando locals thirsty for both for 15-plus years, Will's is something of a petri dish for indie music, a come-as-you-are joint if ever there was that has played host to burgeoning acts of all stripes. Recent improvements to the joint have only bolstered its ability to musically baptize all comers. Bands love playing here. People love seeing them. And if you're looking for reasons to come by before showtime, how do pool, drink specials, 16 taps flowing with microbrews and free WiFi sound? Important to note: Will's Pub isn't just about touring acts; they also host open-mics, hip-hop nights, poetry slams and more.

Recommended for Best Nightlife because: Hands down one of the best live music venues in town, and very much a local favorite.

A.D.'s expert tip: For a mellower, smoke-free alternative, check out Will's Pub offspring Lil' Indies right next door. More great music to pair with beer and wine.

Read more about Will's Pub →




Set in the heart of eclectic Ivanhoe Village, the Venue is a veritable ground-zero for edgy arts and entertainment in Orlando. Perhaps most notably the home of VarieTEASE, Orlando's scintillating burlesque troupe founded by local entertainer/icon Baby Blue Starr, this performance space hosts all manner of theatrical productions along with live music, art expositions, DJ-hosted dance parties and more. An intimate space with cabaret-style seating and an inviting lobby where pre-show cocktail hours often sizzle, sooner or later the Venue's varied menu of arts, dance and music will lure you in for a taste.

Recommended for Best Nightlife because: Insanely fun, cool, experimental, the Venue is a big part of what's made Ivanhoe the hip haven it is today. Go before closing time.

A.D.'s expert tip: It's been on my list for years, but this is the last one! The Venue will close permanently in September of this year. Go. NOW.

Read more about The Venue →


Player 1 Video Game Bar


It doesn't matter if you came up among the current crop of gamers or cut your teeth on Atari Pong, Player 1 has a vast array of old school arcade games, classic and modern console games, a motion gaming dance floor and a drink roster that includes wine, sake, mead and fine craft beers from around the world (along with hard soda and a few other options, as well). This is not your kids' arcade - though you are permitted to bring them between 4 - 6 pm if you plan to supervise. After 6, this place is 21+ and you'll be grateful for it. A $5 cover gets you in, games are unlimited, players are courteous (although good-natured smack talk is entirely acceptable!). There aren't many places you'll find Playstation 3, Galaga, Gauntlet and Ms. Pacman under the same roof. Come check this place out.

Recommended for Best Nightlife because: Five bucks gets you all-night play on everything, from old school arcade cabinets to modern gaming systems.

A.D.'s expert tip: Check their calendar for drink specials, trivia nights, themed events and more!

Read more about Player 1 Video Game Bar →


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Meet A.D. Thompson

Amy Drew has spent nearly three decades as a professional writer and roughly half her life as a Floridian. The words, she has found, come easier with bare feet and rum.

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