From rhinestone cowboy honky-tonks to lowdown Delta blues juke joints, Tennessee is adorned in bar gems from wing to wing. While only about a few-hour drive from one to the next, the culture and makeup of Tennessee's cities are vastly different across the board, and so are its dive bars. But it's their differences that make them beautiful.
Dive bar culture is difficult to define, but there's something intimate about staring into the raw flesh of a building. A dive bar is raw flesh: no bells and whistles, no smoke and mirrors. The drinks are cheap and as cold as they can get 'em. The music is weird or dark or both but everyone there seems to love it. The bartenders are an oxymoron of brusque and vulnerable. Some of the best bars in the country are in the oft-flown-over Volunteer State. You probably won't find Tennessee fruit tea in these dives, but there is plenty of beer. Whatever your flavor, there's a dive here with your name on the wall in Sharpie.
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Wild Bill's Juke Joint
Wild Bill's Juke Joint has been serving Memphis, Tennessee for more than 27 years. What began as a soul food restaurant quickly evolved into a refuge for after-Beale wanderers and Delta blues fans alike. It's since become an institution in the city of Grit and Grind, and one of the last remaining juke joints — lively and near-rural venues for dancing, drinking, gambling, and more — in the Mississippi Delta South.
Wild Bill's is still going stronger than ever these days, open only a few days a week. People come from all over the world to listen to deep-throated, molasses-coated blues inside the walls of Wild Bill's. Beer is served in all sizes, from 12 to 40 ounces. You can't buy hard liquor but you can bring your own, and there's an all-night liquor conveniently located next door. Styrofoam plates of steaming and crispy catfish and hushpuppies sell for cheap, and you can finish your meal with a cigarette inside, if you wish.
1580 Vollintine Ave, Memphis, TN 38107
At the crossroads of the salon philosophers, the hardcore punks, the bookworms, the weirdos, and the freaks is Lamplighter Lounge in Midtown Memphis. This place looks like it was long abandoned in the 1970s: Stained drop-tile ceilings hang overhead and strange found lamps from estate and garage sales alike illuminate the dad-garage decor. Guitar and drum-heavy shows take the back wall stage several times a week. The menu's bigger and better than you'd expect with classic drunk food for carnivores and vegans alike. The beer is cheap and the black coffee is served as it is at a good diner: bottomless.
Another funny idiosyncrasy about Lamplighter: you can become a VIP member. With tiers priced from $10 to $50 per month, you can buy your way to members-only happy hours, exclusive shows, and half-off beers on Saturdays from noon to 7 p.m.
1702 Madison Ave, Memphis, TN 38104
Earnestine & Hazel's
Whether you're a ghost hunter or jonesing for a late-night burger, Earnestine & Hazel's in Downtown Memphis scratches all the itches. This dive, rumored to be haunted and proven to be an archeological site of sorts, has some serious lore behind it. In the second half of the 20th Century, Earnestine & Hazel's was a hot spot for cheap food, drinks, drugs, and sex — the upstairs half of the bar was a well-known brothel until the late 1980s. The libations attracted the layperson and celebrity all the same, with names like Aretha Franklin and Chuck Berry coming to enjoy an after-show nightcap or two. Ray Charles purportedly used to frequent the brothel for heroin and hookers.
Nowadays, E&H is a little more tame, but it still has that haunted feeling — but in a good way. One of the best burgers in town can be found at the behind-the-bar grill, topped with caramelized onions and "Soul Sauce" (Worcestershire sauce with granulated garlic and black pepper). Come for the weird history, stay for the weird vibes. And the burger.
531 S Main St, Memphis, TN 38103
CC Blues Club
In North Memphis, near the Mississippi River, one of the few other off-Beale juke joints in the city stands in all its mystique. CC Blues Club is so off the grid, it's likely unknown by most native Memphians. It's generally impossible to know what's going on each night unless via word of mouth ... or you just show up and see what happens.
CC Blues Club is, like Wild Bill's, BYOB for liquor. They sell beer, and it's cheap and domestic. Sometimes there's a live band, sometimes a DJ or two — the music could be blues, hip hop, soul, funk, or some combination of the genres. The bass is thumping, the room is moving, and the fried chicken is juicy and hot. There is much pain in the world, but not here. Not at CC's.
1427 Thomas St, Memphis, TN 38107
On Broad Street, a green-tiled façade with thick glass block windows calls one off the street but reveals very little about what's beyond its smooth exterior. Inside is more or less a pirate ship. Literally — the bar is shaped like a pirate ship with a bowspirit and foremast sails extending from one end. In the spirit of the nautical theme, Gulf oysters are plentiful on the menu, served plump and fat with cocktail sauce and horseradish, or Rockafeller for a few more bucks.
Events at The Cove are common, with regular trivia on Tuesdays and shows on the weekends. Classic cocktails augment the menu, alongside draft beer and cheap longnecks, but the absinthe list is not to be missed. The green elixir is served traditionally in a Pontarlier reservoir glass. It makes a good and eclectic pairing in a beer and shot combo or a funky chase to a few buttery mollusks.
2559 Broad Ave, Memphis, TN 38112
Momma's disappeared during the pandemic but came back last year in some new digs. Touted as "the first and last bar in Memphis," Momma's rises at 6:30 a.m. and gives last call at 1 a.m. It might not actually be the latest bar in Memphis, but it is likely the earliest. Momma's is a trucker bar situated right next to one of the bridges that crosses the Mississippi River into Arkansas. With FedEx freight based out of West Memphis, and Memphis being a major logistics hub, there are plenty of truckers to patronize and drink at all times of the day. But Momma's is for everyone.
With the renovations came a beautiful outdoor deck with a small soundstage for nighttime performances, and a menu full of breakfast foods and Southern fare. The inside of Momma's is decked with road signs feels clean and new, but still retains that divey musk.
855 Kentucky St, Memphis, TN 38106
The Downtown Tavern
The Downtown Tavern is kind of everything you need in a bar: neon light shining through the dark, cheap beer and well drinks, and some great local acts laying down some licks. The tavern is also one of the few places to have yourself a night if you happen to find yourself in Jackson, Tennessee — often used by travelers as a stopgap halfway between Memphis and Nashville.
You can hear live music at the Tavern every night of the week, during most of which the bar requires a cover. There's a small menu with some basic drunchie food available and a variety of beers wide enough that you can easily get well and drunk without trying them all. The bar can get busy with locals and passers-through at the bookends of the week, but still pumps out good times all around, even with just two people running the whole show.
208 N Liberty St, Jackson, TN 38301
If you're looking to get away from Broadway — far away — it might behoove you to make the trek out to Santa's Pub. This is Nashville's own Christmas-themed dive with a house Santa or two of its own. Seriously, there are Santa figurines all over the property, but the owner, Denzel Irwin, looks much like little Saint Nick himself: an older fella with long white hair and a beard who often wears overalls and a red plaid flannel shirt.
You can drink cheap beer, wail on the mic on karaoke night, and chain smoke with your pals on the porch, but there are a couple of things that are no-go's: paying with a card, anything but beer, and cussing. Santa's Pub is cash only, and the only thing your money is good for is beer. Look elsewhere if you aren't into Miller High Life or PBR. Also, if you are heard cussing within earshot (specifically of the owner), you'll be warned to quit. Repeat violators have been asked to leave.
2225 Bransford Ave, Nashville, TN 37204
Another off-Broadway Nashvillian gem: Dino's. This place has made its mark on East Nashville and beyond as the oldest dive on this side of the city and with one of the best burgers in all the land. Since the 1970s, Dino's has been slinging cheeseburgers and fries like any respectable bar with American food ought to, but these are special. The late and great Anthony Bourdain even made a pit stop here on his romp through town.
Dino's is laden with celebrity: Dolly Parton's face is plastered across the walls and even has her own lemonade stand in the backyard. If you find yourself out at Dino's on a sunny summer afternoon, order yourself a frozen Aperol spritz to go with your burger. Otherwise, a Miller High Life — which has always been the patron saint beer of dive bars — and a shot of bourbon will do fine any night (or day) of the year.
411 Gallatin Ave, Nashville, TN 37206
Robert's Western World
Okay, fine — so you've made it to the chaos of Broadway. What are you thinking? Where am I not going to get ripped off or a drink spilled all over me? Where can I hear some real country music? Where can I get a damn sandwich around here? Glad you asked. Robert's Western World calls itself "Nashville's Home of Traditional Country Music." They're famous for the bands that — seven days a week — light up the crowded barroom with outlaw, honky-tonk, and Bakersfield sound-country. It's one of the few unbudging strongholds preserving the old-school sound around town.
Robert's is also famed for its Recession Special — a fried bologna sandwich, chips, a Moon Pie, and a PBR for just $6, and of which they crank out dozens upon dozens per night. Cheap domestic beers like PBR, Busch, and High Life are all $2.50, which is an unheard-of bargain elsewhere on Broadway.
416 Broadway #B, Nashville, TN 37203
Mickey's Tavern is very much a local's bar in Nashville, near Five Points. The wood floors and doors are scuffed and scraped down from years of wear, which shows under red lights, one of which hangs in the window and reads: "THIS IS IT." There's pool, foosball, and darts, and ice-cold tall cans of Schlitz.
The inside of the bar is tiny but the backyard is not. Throughout the year, the picnic tables fill up with hungry folks trying to get a bite in of the popup in residence, MALA VIDA. The little white truck serves Mexican-forward bar food. Back inside, you won't find much in the way of beer selection or cocktails, but there is a well-curated selection of rare whiskeys — this dive's proper ode to Tennessee — on the shelf ripe for the picking.
2907 Gallatin Pike, Nashville, TN 37216
Dee's Country Cocktail Lounge
If you're in need of some charming kitsch in your life, look to Dee's Country Cocktail Lounge in Madison, a suburban neighborhood of northeast Nashville. Dee's is a time-warp stuck in the country groove of the '70s. There's live music just about every night here, with plenty of local and national country acts taking the plastic gold-frilled and disco ball-hung stage. There is a rhinestone shine that twinkles about the scene at Dee's, from the cocktails to the leather half-moon booths to the old-school letterboard menu.
The drunk food at Dee's is top-notch and rather continental in its curation, with Texas favorites like Frito pie and Midwest classics like Chicago Italian beef sandwiches selling for the cheap. Dee's is a lovely excuse to get out of the hubbub of Downtown Nashville while still living it up in the city's music, food, and bar scene.
102 E Palestine Ave, Madison, TN 37115
If you're looking for even more live music in Music City, but you're growing tired of the many iterations of country, dive in at The End. This brutally-logoed watering hole has been hosting an eclectic list of rock 'n roll acts, from Minor Threat to The Silver Jews since 1999, and today, the party goes on.
Located on what is known locally as the "Rock Block" of Elliston Place, The End throws shows most days of the week for which tickets are all available online. Inside is grungy, unfinished, and gritty. Outside, the back patio is more of an alleyway with tables. The bathrooms are kinda gross but the beer is cheap and plentiful and the music is loud. Come as you are.
2219 Elliston Pl, Nashville, TN 37203
Rosie's Twin Kegs
Keeping in the trend of beers and burgers in a minimalist setting, Rosie's Twin Kegs has been a stronghold for the cheap and satisfying since the mid-70s. It's passed through various sets of hands over the years, but since 2017, it's been run by Tia Rose Mirenda, a former Twin Kegs bartender who saw promise in the building when it went up for sale.
Now, in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Randor, Rosie's burger game is going harder than ever and the beer is just as abundant and free-flowing. Wood-paneled walls hold up tiny shelves, old-school beer mirrors, and a TV with whatever sporting event happens to be on at the time. Folks come from around the city for the food and drink and stay for the karaoke and shady backyard in the warmer months.
413 W Thompson Ln, Nashville, TN 37211
Marie's Olde Towne Tavern
In the historic Fourth and Gill neighborhood of Knoxville sits a shingled brick building with dark windows. Inside, not much more to do besides eat chips and fresh popcorn, drink beer, sing karaoke, and meet a familiar stranger. Come alone or with a group — all are welcome at Marie's. You can even still smoke inside, if you choose.
There's usually space for anyone, even during Vols games when the flanking breweries — Yee-Haw and Schulz Bräu — are full. The crowd is about as local as it gets, with old heads and University of Tennessee students joining hands under the unity brought by beer under $5 and live football in a dark bar. The owner, Marie Owen, is usually the first to greet incoming patrons and will see to it that you are kept happy and hydrated throughout your stay.
904 N Central St, Knoxville, TN 37917
What was originally meant to be an Irish pub was decidedly made an English pub after the previous owners' visit to one in Florida. The bar has grown plenty since its early days, evolving from a humble beer cooler with three kegs and some bottles to open-late food service, a well-loved patio, and 220 beers available from around the world — 20 of which are on tap.
If you're feeling competitive (and have the ability to return to Union Jack's regularly), try your hand (or mouth?) at the beer challenge, which involves drinking at least one entire beer of every kind the bar serves. Those successful will end up with the modest trophy of their name on the wall. If you're thinking of trying the old boot-and-rally trick to finish the challenge off in a night or two, think again. You can only count four beers toward your total in a single night.
124 S Northshore Dr, Knoxville, TN 37919
Back Door Tavern
Known lovingly as "Toddy's" by locals, the Back Door Tavern in West Knoxville is home to good times by the armload. From the occasional live show to back porch horseshoes to beer after beer after beer, Back Door Tavern has gone down in history as a beloved backwater dive in East Tennessee. Toddy's used to be a regular haunt of Peyton Manning when he played for the Volunteers way back in the mid-1990s.
The bar nearly hung up its hat in 2017 after 30 years of service, causing an outpour of melancholy and grief from longtime patrons. Luckily, Back Door Tavern reopened only a few weeks later after a few regulars pitched in to help keep the doors unlocked and the lights on. Toddy's is a modern-day miracle, with the beer still cold and the laughs still echoing around the bar, to this day.
4951 Kingston Pike, Knoxville, TN 37919
A couple blocks up the road from Marie's Old Towne is another Tavern, whose name asks only one question: why not? Y-Not Tavern is a ramshackle old pub with the barebones essentials: pool tables, a few dart boards, brick walls, and dirt-cheap beer.
Karaoke's about the only thing going on inside besides the drinking, darts, and pool, but that's okay, because this shanty shack in Happy Holler isn't trying to be anything but its true self. Bring your most unapologetic self with your heart on your sleeve and, go ahead, belt out Mr. Brightside like you've been pining for since beer number two. Because, well, Y-Not?
1166 N Houston Levee Rd, Cordova, TN 38018
It's hard to judge a book by its cover, but sometimes, that's the best course of measure for a dive bar — often what you see is what you get, and sometimes the best have very little. We curated this of dives in the great state of Tennessee based on several factors, including atmosphere, character, drinks and prices, clientele, and charm.
In every bar on this list, you will find a diamond in the rough: a place with personality and wrinkles, one that feels lived in. The staff are kind-hearted, but will likely square up with (at the very least) some harsh words to the few pretentious or judgemental characters who may straggle in from time to time. Beer is a must, and it must be cheap, at the very least. Other offerings are appreciated but not necessary. The general crowd of patrons should be mostly local and unpretentious, and a wide age range is a plus. Finally, a good dive should charm you like a pungi to a cobra, calling you in with strange hypnosis and keeping you entertained long after you originally bargained for.
Read the original article on Tasting Table.