Photography by Justin Fox Burks
On the day before your best friend flies into town for a visit, you’re scrambling to plan enough activities to answer when she drops her bags and asks, “What is there to do in Memphis?”
This wouldn’t be a problem if Memphis were simply the sum of its tourism parts. But it isn’t. Any Memphian will tell you, there are enough things to do here to satisfy the full array of personalities and passers-through.
We’ve broken down Memphis visitors into four types, with an itinerary catered specifically to each. You can mix and match, improvise, or take it as holy word: Here is the nightlife guide for Memphis.
For the Party Animal
Who doesn’t immediately trot to Beale Street for a night out on the town? And we’ll do that, too, but first we’re scoping out the party scene that lets you shout from the rooftops — literally.
We’re talking about rooftop parties, of course, and there are two particular fêtes for which Memphians go up to get down. The Peabody Rooftop Party (149 Union) runs throughout the warmer months every Thursday night from 6 to 11 p.m. For a modest cover charge ($10, which includes one drink) you’ll mix, mingle, and hoof it to the live music, against the backdrop of a setting sun and the Memphis skyline. Ladies get in free until 7 p.m. and VIP season passes are available for $75.
The second sky-high shindig, Sunset Atop the Madison (79 Madison), is a little more sophisticated, with tapas and small plates for sale, cocktails, and equal parts seating and dance floor. Also on Thursday night, Sunset Atop the Madison has only a $7 cover, but ends a little earlier (at 10 p.m.).
As promised, a Beale Street tour is in order. The first and easiest attraction to experience is a performance by the Beale Street Flippers, who will no doubt be sweeping up and down the street, clearing people to the curbs to make space for their tumbling act. It’s worth a watch (and a tip) before you move off to find your first venue.
Start off with a few rounds of beer and pool at the Absinthe Room (162 Beale), where you can watch Beale Street fill with revelers from the vantage of the upstairs windows. If what you see below lures you out for another stroll along Beale, be sure to grab something frosty, colorful, and strong from Wet Willie’s (209 Beale), where a large frozen cocktail will ring up around $8.50. From there, the dance floor at Alfred’s (197 Beale) or one of the three dance floors in the multi-tiered Club 152 (152 Beale) should be your next stop.
Cut through the smoke and mirrors (literally) and dance in the light of the disco ball while Jheri-curled legend Robert Raiford plays your favorite dance tunes.
Once you’ve sated yourself on the party offerings of Beale Street, your night — er, early morning — should finish with a trip to Paula Raiford’s Disco (14 S. Second). No substitute will do for the delightfully retro boogie palace that is Raiford’s: Locals can attest that if you’ve made it to Raiford’s, then you’ve had a good night. Cut through the smoke and mirrors (literally) and dance in the light of the disco ball while Jheri-curled legend Robert Raiford plays your favorite dance tunes.
For the Hipster
Coming in from Austin? Brooklyn? L.A.? We’re not saying you’re necessarily a hipster, but chances are you’ll enjoy these activities either way. Here’s the nerdy, grungy, ironic way to enjoy Memphis.
Trivia nights are always a best bet, with locals settling into their favorite bars for a chance to flex the muscle between their ears. Topping the list of trivia nights with a cultish following are The P&H (1532 Madison) and The Cove (2559 Broad) on Tuesday Nights, The Blue Monkey (2012 Madison) on Wednesday night, and Young Avenue Deli (2119 Young) on Thursday night. You won’t just be in the running for prizes, you’ll be showing off your knowledge of random facts, team-naming skills, and ability to focus in the face of nerdish frenzy. Not a trivia nut? These joints all offer live music and plenty of cold beer in a laid-back setting.
If you’d rather belt out the song in your heart or impress the world with your mastery of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” check out karaoke night at the saloon dive Yosemite Sam’s (2126 Madison) or the Blue Monkey Downtown (513 S. Front) or head to East Memphis to The Windjammer (786 E. Brookhaven Circle), where every night is karaoke night.
Are you a no-frills bars and breweries type? Check out local dive bar favorites, like The Lamplighter (1702 Madison) where a PBR is always on tap and your skinny jeans are never out of style, or Alex’s Tavern (1445 Jackson), which is over 50 years old and a late-late-night home away from home for students of nearby Rhodes College. Grab a cold beer and a cheeseburger and bask in the glow of the jukebox.
Or if your tastes are geared towards brews beyond the cheap and cold variety, consider a visit to Boscos Squared (2120 Madison), “The Restaurant for Beer Lovers,” and order up a mug of one of their hand-crafted beers, like the famous Flaming Stone Beer.
If you plan on winding down before midnight, why not swing by Black Lodge Video (831 S. Cooper)? Lovingly named after a location in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Black Lodge has it all: indie films, cult favorites, new releases, and old classics to draw a line under your boozy, brainy evening.
For the Swanky Gourmet
When “Where are we going tonight?” is synonymous with “What are we going to eat?” you’ll be pleased to know that Memphis is poised to keep the most refined diners entertained. Staying in East Memphis? Even better, because our first two options will be right in your neighborhood.
Erling Jensen (1044 S. Yates), named for the chef himself and considered one of the top fine-dining establishments in Memphis, has recently updated its bar area to accommodate a more upscale casual scene. This means delectable small plates, an extensive wine list, and plenty of people-watching from the comfortable bar seating.
Equally elegant and now open after years of preparation, Wally Joe’s ACRE (690 S. Perkins) has a splendidly tasteful and sophisticated ambience to match its contemporary cuisine. For wine savants, the offerings are chosen with special emphasis on small producers and limited production wines. And sidle up to the beautiful bar — separated from the main dining rooms — for an artisan cocktail with house-made syrups and infusions.
If you’re staying closer to Midtown or downtown, you have the luxury of being close to Mollie Fontaine Lounge (679 Adams), housed in a stunning Victorian home and open from “5 p.m. ’til the spirits go to sleep.” Comfortable and chic seating, multiple floors, and plenty of tasty bites and cool cocktails make Mollie Fontaine’s a local favorite for an after-hours wind-down.
The Cooper-Young district also boasts a few swanky bars, like that of Tsunami (928 S. Cooper), a sophisticated Pacific Rim restaurant that recently extended its bar seating. It offers izakaya, small plates akin to Japanese tapas, and was recently host to a cocktail contest, “Iron Chef” style.
Across the street, Sweet Grass Next Door (937 S. Cooper), the close sister of Sweet Grass, offers a full bar and coastal cuisine small plates, drawing in local residents every day from happy hour until close (11 p.m.).
Further down Cooper, The Beauty Shop (966 S. Cooper) stays open until midnight, serving up their martini specials in a refurbished beauty shop — where hair-drying chairs as seating make for a swanky vintage atmosphere.
Looking to venture downtown? South of Beale (361 S. Main), a local gastropub, is open until around 3 a.m. on the weekends and midnight during the week. It serves a late-night menu that’s perfect for those wee hours when your stomach is rumbling, and the full bar and pint nights on Wednesday and Sunday make this a staple for thirsty locals. Try the cucumber martini for a refreshing summer treat.
And closer to the heart of downtown, The Majestic Grille (145 S. Main) offers “dramatic dining where food takes center stage.” Situated in a repurposed movie theater, this Main Street joint stays true to its roots, projecting Hollywood classics on its movie screen. It has a strawberry basil martini of considerable repute, and a large wine menu to complement its range of signature flatbreads, from duck confit to grilled artichoke.
For the Culture Sponge
Recently named one of the top bars in America by thedailymeal.com, Wild Bill’s was chosen for its live blues and patrons who aren’t afraid to throw down on the dance floor.
For a slice of Memphis quirk and culture, there are a number of off-the-beaten path places to check out, starting with the infamous Wild Bill’s (1580 Vollintine). Recently named one of the top bars in America by thedailymeal.com, Wild Bill’s was chosen for its live blues and patrons who aren’t afraid to throw down on the dance floor. It’s an unadorned, gritty juke joint, but if you’re looking for authenticity, you’ll be right at home.
In the same vein, C C Blues Club (1427 Thomas) is not exactly a tourist destination, but it will give you that retro club you thought was extinct. The club is BYOB, but don’t let that and the $10 cover charge chase you away — for a truly Memphis experience it’s worth every penny.
Memphis Sounds Lounge (22 N. Third St.) boasts “cool jazz, hot blues” and within those walls you’ll find exactly that. Memphis Sounds is not off the beaten path — it’s actually in the heart of downtown — so if you’re looking to stay close to the center city, this live music joint is likely your best bet for local music.
If you’re feeling truly adventurous, Graceland Too (200 E. Gholson Ave., Holly Springs, MS) is an hour south of the city, but you’ll never experience anything else like it. Zealous Elvis fan Paul McLeod has converted his home into an unofficial Elvis museum, jam-packed with memorabilia and items he’s collected throughout his decades-long obsession. The cover is $5 and the museum is open 24 hours a day, hence the late-night appeal. Done daytime Graceland and looking for more Elvis? All you have to do is show up and knock.