Dusty pool tables, beat-up dart boards, jukeboxes with actual 45s behind the glass….as much as concept bars around the world try to replicate this down-and-dirty vibe, nothing beats a real dive bar. If you're planning a trip to the home of rock'n'soul, do yourself a favour and add a dive or two to your late-night itinerary.
Memphis, and really, the whiskey state of Tennessee as a whole, does these holes-in-the-wall better than anyone else. It's a city packed with music lovers as passionate about chow and swill as they are about their tunes, and that famed hospitality found only in America's south, so one can expect the drinks to be served fast and cold, with good conversation and a cool jukebox in the corner. But what you can't bet on is how your night will pan out. The beauty of the dive is in its unpredictability.
Flickr / BullyRook
From the outside, "The Bucc" looks like a little yellow house, but it's a different story inside: it's dark at any time of the day, the tables are rickety, the drinks are dirt-cheap, and the soundtrack is stuck on loud.
The Buccaneer is loose and the bartenders are surly, so signing up for a night here will involve some swashbuckling – with a heavy hangover to follow. The bar has a rotating roster of bands playing everything from punk and country to soul and beyond, and the clientele can range from off-beat locals with a story to tell to the city's hippest cliques.
Take everything you see here with a grain of salt, and you'll be fine. The Buccaneer is open daily between 12pm and 3am.
1368 Monroe Avenue, Memphis, TN T:+1 901 278 0909
Poor & Hungry Café
A home for all types
Facebook / The P&H Cafe
If stand-up comedy, karaoke, open-mic performances, partnered with a big jug of beer sounds like a good time to you, the Poor and Hungry – or P&H for short – is your kind of dive. The walls are dark and lined with corkboards which are littered with photos, notes, postcards, and local memorabilia. Dartboards and kitsch neon signs give the venue a sense of homeliness that you can only find in an authentic "local" haunt.
If you're expecting to be served a cocktail, forget it – it's beer, beer, beer at the P&H, and they're cheap, cheap, cheap. The clientele is a mix of hops-lovers and local bohemians, and the entertainment is, at the very least, entertaining. The burgers on the menu cost less than $13 and aren't bad at all, though it's advisable to walk up the road to The BBQ Shop (782 Madison Avenue, Memphis) over eating here.
P&H Café is open between 3pm and 3am Monday to Friday and between 5pm and 3am on Saturdays.
1532 Madison Avenue, Memphis, TNT:+1 901 726 0906
A legendary legacy
Flickr / BullyRook
Part of Memphis' cultural tapestry for over 40 years, this dusty bar was run with an iron fist by long-time bartender, Miss Shirley – who, as legend has it, suffered no fools: she once notoriously banned artist William Eggleston for a decade for recklessness.
Sadly, Miss Shirley is no longer behind the bar, but her presence is still felt. Serving only cheap beer (you can BYO liquor, for a fee), and taking nothing but cash, Lamplighter is a also popular haunt for musicians living locally or passing through (Jack White and the late Jeff Buckley both pulled up a stool at the Lamplighter bar). The venue regularly hosts live music, too.
Come for the kitsch, stay for the conversation, and definitely put some quarters in the jukebox which plays and impressively eclectic catalogue of 45s exclusively. The Lamplighter is open between 3pm and 3am Sunday to Friday, and 5pm to 3am on Saturdays.
1702 Madison Avenue, Memphis, TN T:+1 901 726 1101
Earnestine & Hazel's
Jazz scene haunt
Flickr / foca71
Like ghost stories? Welcome to the most haunted bar in America. Built in the late 1800s, it's been a church, a pharmacy, and a brothel, all before it became a legendary jazz-scene hangout. B.B. King, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Bo Diddley, Sam Cook, and Chuck Berry all sipped a drink here, so you can imagine the kind of stories these walls could tell.
As for the paranormal? Ask around and you'll hear stories of whispering voices, orbs, spooky jukebox song selections, and so on.
Cosy, with stacks of charm, cheap drinks, great food (the Soul Burger is the only way to go), and one of the best jukeboxes in town (even if the living aren't always the ones selecting the songs), Earnestine and Hazel's is cute despite its creepy reputation. Who knows, you might just end up leaving with a ghost story of your own.
Earnestine and Hazel's is open between 5pm and 3am Sunday to Friday, and 11am to 3am on Saturday.
531 S Main Street, Memphis, TNT:+1 901 523 9754