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

By A.D. Thompson, Orlando Local Expert

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. 

10. Orlando Improv Comedy Club and Dinner Theatre

You have come to the right place if you're looking for quality stand up comedy in Orlando and a delicious meal. Guests who arrive early can enjoy a leisurely dinner of items like the Comedy Club Cornbread, Bacon & Bleu Cheese Burger or the Roasted Chicken Salad, and some beers while they wait for the show to start (the sweet potato fries with bourbon butter sauce are a must!) The lineups at Orlando Improv are usually varied between local talent and more well-known headliners like Cedric the Entertainer and Tommy Davidson. Plan on going early to snag a good table.

9. Mad Cow Theatre
Photo courtesy of Mad Cow Theatre

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 – which runs everything from intimate cabarets to dramatic plays to musical productions – 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 – from Anton Chekov to Tennessee Williams to the Bard Shakespeare himself – you'll likely find a Mad Cow production worthy of an evening out in the city's ever-growing downtown nightlife district.

8. Kush Ultralounge
Photo courtesy of Kush Ultralounge

"Sleek." "Sexy." "Clandestine." These are just three words that Kush enthusiasts use to describe their favorite Orlando hookah lounge, a hip upstairs hideaway where fans of the shisha delight in hip digs with speakeasy-like sensibility. White leather couches, multicolored ambient lighting, music and video meld with fragrant smoke to create a unique, club-like vibe in cozy, comfortable confines. In addition posh atmosphere and flavored tobacco, Kush serves beer and wine. And for those of you in need of a little fresh air, there's also an oxygen bar. Dress appropriately for a downtown night out; save your flips and cut-offs for the beach.

7. Independent Bar
Photo courtesy of One80 Grey Goose Lounge

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, so 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 music mix) are ever-evolving, but always indicative of the venue's convivial vibe.

6. Parliament House
Photo courtesy of Parliament House Orlando

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 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.

5. The Wine Room
Photo courtesy of The Wine Room

The Tuscan-styled Wine Room makes use of a system of self-serve, portion-controlled Enomatic wine dispensers to facilitate service. And seriously? It's fantastic. Staffers here are not only passionate about wines, they are more than happy to spend time sharing their knowledge. With a little effort, they'll guide you to an $8 cabernet that rivals the most expensive bottle in the joint. The "automat" style makes sampling fun. Put some money on their debit-like wine card, and sample as many of the 150+ bottles as you want by plugging your card into each dispenser. Great for date nights, special occasions, friendly nights out.

4. The Imperial at Washburn Imports (Orlando)
Photo courtesy of The Imperial at Washburn Imports - Orlando

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.

3. Timucua Arts White House
Photo courtesy of Timucua Arts White House

What happens when a world-class musician converts his beautiful downton 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 – 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.

2. The Venue
Photo courtesy of The Venue

A fixture in one of Orlando's most interesting 'hoods, the Venue is a veritable ground-zero for edgy arts and entertainment in Orlando. Perhaps most notably the "home base" of Orlando's scintillating local entertainer/burlesque icon, Blue Starr, this performance space hosts all manner of theatrical productions along with live music, theatrical presentations, comedians, art expositions, DJ-hosted dance parties and more. An intimate space with cabaret-style seating and an inviting lobby where pre-show cocktail hours (and happy hours) often sizzle, sooner or later the Venue's varied menu of arts, dance and music will hit your sweet spot and lure you in for a taste.

1. Player 1 Video Game Bar
Photo courtesy of 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.