In the past year, Nashville, Tenn., has seen more than 100 restaurants and bars open, a number that’s expected to be surpassed in 2018. But even as the city’s drinking scene booms with newness, Music City still holds onto its past, with locals remaining loyal to many tried-and-true establishments—the honky-tonks and dive bars that support and carry on this city’s signature industry. So, whether you want an inventive cocktail and a high-gravity beer, or a little bit of bluegrass to go with your Bud Light, Nashville’s bar scene is here to deliver.
With so many choices, it’s best to take things one neighborhood at a time. Here, we break it down with the four essential drinking zones where you can discover Nashville, new and old.
The neon-blazing heart of the city runs along Broadway, where music spills from honky-tonks all day and night. A quick stop into Robert’s Western World will set the tone. There’s no cover, the PBRs are cold, and the country and bluegrass acts sing just as many original tunes as covers. Down the way, Acme Feed & Seed has three stories of bars and live music, including a rooftop with views of the river.
Head up the hill towards Printer’s Alley, which is lined with dive bars. For a burlesque show and expertly mixed drinks, slip into Skull’s Rainbow Room. Order The Climax Club (Buffalo Trace bourbon, turbinado syrup, and cucumber bitters) and settle in for the show. Nearby, Black Rabbit makes fresh, seasonal shrubs for drinks like the Josephine (Wodka with a strawberry-plum pickle). It backs up to an alley where you’ll find the entrance to Gray & Dudley inside the 21C Museum Hotel, where chef Levon Wallace blends his Southern influences with international flare in dishes like the boudin-filled lumpia—that one stands up to boozy drinks like the Hispaniola (Xicaru mezcal, El Jimador Reposado, crème de banana, and bitters).
Ogle the soaring lobby bar of the Noelle hotel, then make your way 13 stories up to Rare Bird, the rooftop bar with limestone fireplaces and frozen options, like frosé and freisling. From there, head towards the historic Hermitage Hotel, where downstairs you’ll find the stately Oak Bar. Order up a proper whiskey from the 130-bottle selection; your sip will come served on a tray, neat, with a glass of ice on the side.
Looking for more brown liquor to carry you through? Stretch your legs as you walk a few blocks towards Husk Nashville, where the strong selection of bourbons is complemented by a long list of Southern craft brews. Stay in the neighborhood with a stop into the hip, all-day hang Pinewood Social, where you can score a bucket of fried chicken and a round of bowling, or head out towards the patio and pool deck where the airstream bar is open seasonally.
Once a barren train yard, The Gulch now glitters with high-rise hotels, apartments, and street-level restaurants. In the North Gulch, you’ll find a trio of restaurants owned by chef Maneet Chauhan. The patio of The Mockingbird, a globally inspired diner, is the best spot to take down a Punchin’ Bag, a boozy fruit punch served in a bag with a straw.
In the central Gulch, pop into Gertie’s Bar at the base of the 404 Kitchen, for a look at its 500-bottle whiskey selection, which is strong on Japanese labels. Across the street, L.A. Jackson, perched atop the Thompson Hotel, serves up eclectic cocktails and views of downtown from its spacious patio.
For a taste of old Nashville, spend some time inside the historic Station Inn, where you’ll find roots and bluegrass acts filling the space nightly. Beers are served out of a small window in one of the walls and the music is as true as you can get.
Take a walk onto Division Street, which will get you over to two of the city’s best local breweries. Jackalope, a female-run venture, makes a line of staples, like the Bearwalker Maple Brown, as well as more experimental brews, like the Casper Gose. Another brisk walk will get you to Pie Town where Tennessee Brew Works has a two-story tasting room, a full menu, and samplers (as well as full pours) of classics, like its Southern Wit witbier.
It’s a stretch to make the walk, but a quick Uber or Lyft will get you to the Wedgewood Houston neighborhood, home to two stellar bars, including Bastion, which offers up a colorful, casual drinking space and short selection of boilermakers, plus a great plate of nachos. (For one of the city’s best tasting menus, make a reservation at the hidden restaurant in the back). Hemingway’s Bar & Hideaway celebrates its namesake with a solid daiquiri, plus a strong selection of rums.
Newly established East Hill Row is deep into East Nashville but worth the drive for a stop into Walden, where all the drinks are available on tap. The neighboring Fox Bar & Cocktail Club is a tidy den and usually requires a brief wait, but once you slip in, the Brandy Old Fashioned and other classic cocktails are worth it. If there’s a wait, you can throw darts upstairs at one of the city’s best dive bars, Mickey’s Tavern.
Meander down Gallatin Pike and stop into the retro neighborhood dive, Inglewood Lounge for cheap beers and a plate of poutine. A little further along, you’ll find Peninsula, which has a selection of seven or eight unique gin-and-tonic combinations, like the #6 made with St. George dry rye gin.
Head east to find your way to the original Southern Grist taproom, which pours its version of the New England IPA called Mixed Greens. A short ways off, in the residential outskirts of Five Points, tuck into Public House (at the Urban Cowboy), which offers a charming patio and finely mixed drinks served from a compact bar. Just a few blocks south, the no-menu, New York bar Attaboy opened a Nashville outpost with a relaxed vibe and tailor-made cocktails.
The late-night game is strong as you head closer to town. Dino’s is another worn-in dive with cheap beers and burgers. Next door, Bar 308 mixes up excellent craft beverages, many of which are based on literary icons.
No Nashville visit is complete without a stop into City House for a belly ham pizza and a glass from the thoughtful wine list. Nearby, Henrietta Red has oysters nightly, plus a strong list of aperitifs, including a few small-batch sherries. At Rolf & Daughters, both the cocktail and wine lists are full of esoteric finds. Kuchnia & Keller around the corner offers a strong list of beers with hard-to-find bottles and large-format selections, as well as a late-night hot dog and sausage menu.
For more beer discovery, find your way to Bearded Iris Brewing for a heady Pixelated brew. There’s also Butchertown Hall, which has a beer garden as well as an extensive list of regional and international beers to accompany its Texas-style barbecue. A more spacious beer garden experience, complete with yard games and communal tables, awaits at Von Elrod’s, which pours several German and Belgian beers from its 36 taps.
If you’re looking for a dark, cozy space with an absinthe nightcap nearby, The Green Hour opens Thursday through Saturday inside a space that transforms from daytime café to bar after dark. The absinthe is served in the traditional style of La Louche, which slowly drizzles water into the glass; there are also bubbles and lighter cocktails, depending on your preferred poison. All of it provides a fine finishing touch to exploring Nashville’s beverage scene.