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The sophisticated place to cocktail when you’re downtown
Meta is sophisticated without being pretentious, elite without being exclusive. All cocktail seekers, from connoisseurs to casual drinkers, are welcome here. While the designer wallpaper, low lighting, and velour sofas alone are reason enough to gather at Meta with friends, you won’t be disappointed by their drinks, either. While classic and craft cocktails, often using local spirits, are the draw, there’s plenty of fun going on as well – this is a place that sometimes uses Pappy Van Winkle bourbon to make Jell-O shots. Yeah, these folks know how to do it right.
Laid-back gay bar that welcomes everyone
Big Bar feels like a classic neighborhood bar that’s had some enchanting upgrades; a rotating cast of regulars gives this cozy Highlands hotspot a right-at-home feel, and bar manager Drew Gillum never misses an opportunity to deck the chandeliers in tasteful seasonal decor. It’s billed as a gay bar, but everyone is welcome, and it’s tough not to have a good time in the place. Save your dollars for the go-go boys and your best vocals for their twice-a-week karaoke night because the house party is always on. Pro tip: The lighting in Big Bar makes for the best selfies.
The most complete bar and lounge under one roof
The Hub is the tool belt of neighborhood bars -- if you need it, it’s got it. Food: a casual selection of elevated Southern classics. Beverages: a regionally focused beer list and custom cocktails. Space to unwind: large patio, weekly dance party Saturday nights in The Pit featuring a late-night happy hour, and a long communal table in their private dining area. Drift from fall into winter with their half-priced bottles of wine on Wednesdays and $5 sangrias. Parking is limited, and more than likely you’ll be staying for more than one drink, so arriving by Uber or Lyft is ideal.
Upscale flair and bourbon on Main with carefully curated art on the walls
Proof on Main is your best-of-both-worlds bar, so if you and your companion have different tastes, no worries -- there’s fine bourbon for you and award-winning wine for them. With a menu boasting more than 75 different bourbons, you can go on a distillery tour without ever getting up from your seat. The art on the walls at Proof is as expertly curated, as is the art in the adjoining 21c museum. And there’s also a Southern-inspired menu to die for if you’re hungry (try the squid salad if you’re feeling adventurous).
The crazy sexy, cool bar in the sky
8UP is the rooftop bar Louisville goes to get those big-city feels -- and big-city cocktail prices, too. Situated on the rooftop of the Hilton Garden Inn, this space has an entirely separate atmosphere than the hotel below. Sexy reds, curved lampshades, velour sofas, and a glass fire pit give this space a sensual vibe. The "Sparkling Sapphire," a gin and lychee cocktail finished off with a dose of cava, remains from the summer menu, but has been joined by seasonal offerings like the "Strawberry Cheesecake" (Michael Godard gin, Giffard crème de fraise des bois, lemon juice, ricotta cheese) and the "Autumn Nip" (Michter's bourbon, sweet potato pie syrup, black walnut bitters, and a Caol Ila 12-year Scotch rinse, garnished with an orange peel).
Neighborhood fun turns nighttime dance party
While lots of folks would advise you visit Seidenfaiden’s on Saturday night, Friday night for Saving Our Style’s "All Waves" party is really when you want to fall through. On the inside, Seidenfaiden’s looks like one of those nondescript bars you’d find on the set of a TV show. But the barflies hunched over their beers in the late afternoon sun give the bar over to party kids who turn the bar into a dance club when the hours begin to stretch past midnight.
Live music meets incredibly tasty margaritas
Galaxie nails the upscale dive bar aesthetic -- you’re here for affordable drinks against a deluxe backdrop. Their casual, come-as-you-are crowd drains glass after glass of the bar’s famous spicy margaritas in carefully orchestrated dim lighting. In warm weather, the good times spill out onto a few tables that line their sidewalk. Dancing is encouraged on Thursday and Saturday nights. Not down for a marg? Go for the "Breakfast of Champions" special: a can of beer and a shot of whisky -- selection changes daily.
Laid-back drinks and eats in a former service station
Garage Bar, like Proof On Main, is part of the 21c family, which is evident by its ample list of bourbons. You'll dine and drink in a retrofitted auto service garage, and the bar makes as much use of its outdoor space as its indoor, with picnic tables out front and table tennis off to side, surrounded by AstroTurf covered lounges. All the cocktails are excellent, but you’ll want to start the festivities off with an oyster shooter: oyster + vodka + Bloody Mary mix. And be sure to make note of the art installation out front -- it’s two cars destined for a head-on collision, but it takes weeks to happen. But one day you’ll show up and they’ll be crunched.
The classic dive bar -- and institution -- that welcomes all
The Back Door is an institution. For many a young Louisvillian, it’s the bar they graduated to when they outgrew their favorite college bar. Owner John Dant describes their patrons as anyone from "bikers to brain surgeons." The bartenders -- many going on 20 years with the bar -- are well known to be more than generous with their pours, so be sure to line your belly with some of their classic bar fare, too.
Games, music, and drinks in a historic venue
Affectionately known as Z-bar by locals, Zanzabar’s been around since 1938, with a few hiccups here and there. So you’re supporting a piece of Louisville history every time you knock back a shot. It has a whole vintage arcade-thing going on in the front, but on the weekends, most folks breeze right past and out onto the heated patio where there’s free Wi-Fi, or to the back of the bar to get sweaty on the dance floor. This place is exceptional because you can dance all night without anyone trying to grind up on you -- yeah, it’s basically heaven in that way. Z-bar offers up a standard selection of beer and mixed drinks, but an above standard selection of dishes on their food menu. Plus, touring bands rock out in the attached venue.
Pair your favorite jukebox tunes with a cheap drink
Mag Bar says they want to be known as the bar that literally welcomes "all who want to drink and have a good time." And since 1962, that’s who they’ve been. Individuals from overlapping scenes all congregate at Mag Bar for their rotating list of draft and bottled beers, the best jukebox in town, and to catch the live show of a band they’ve been digging. If you’re feeling standoffish, this quintessential Louisville bar isn’t going to be a fit for you tonight.
Two bars in one in a bustling corridor
The Highlands Tap Room famously moved to a new location a few blocks down Bardstown Road, then opened a second location right next door to their new location, giving Louisville both The Highlands Tap Room & Grill and New Old Tap Room. A night at the Tap Room is basically like going to a house party that has spilled out onto the front lawn, except you don’t have to worry about the cops getting called. There’s a wide selection of beer, but don’t expect to order a fancy cocktail here; the bar is slammed almost every night, and your best bet is to order whatever the bartenders can mix the fastest (it’s also a Chicago Cubs bar, so keep that in mind for when spring rolls around).
How often do you get a chance to drink beer in a church?
Holy Grale has 27 beers on tap and roughly 75 different bottles, focusing on otherwise hard-to-find beers in a converted Unitarian chapel. It’s also a good bet that it’s the only proudly bourbon-free bar in town. If the main bar downstairs is full, you can head upstairs to the Choir Loft for a bit more elbow room and even more beers to choose from. Its expansive beer list manages to be less intimidating, though, as it’s got helpful notes -- and the bartenders are exceptionally knowledgeable and totally willing to help you out.
Bourbon, beers, and video games
RecBar is Louisville’s take on popular Williamsburg establishment and Thrillist NYC fave, Barcade. Their website helpfully lists the numerous arcade games they have on-site, so you can check it out before you visit and budget your coins accordingly. Their drink list features a rotating selection of 16 beers on tap, just as many cans, and a bourbon list that’s only put to shame by Proof on Main and Garage Bar.
Posh cocktail bar (and a celebrity chef)
If you head downtown this holiday season to catch a show, MilkWood is conveniently located at Actor’s Theatre and a brisk walk from The Kentucky Center For The Arts. You may have seen Chef Edward Lee featured on the PBS series Mind Of A Chef, and Milkwood’s drink menu is quite comprehensive, with cocktails, wines, and beers organized by palette and preference, with categories like herbaceous, lush, bitter, and umami. Order the Big In Bangkok and be prepared to be surprised by how well peanut butter and Four Roses go together.
Classic cocktails meet oysters and barbecue
Oysters, barbecue, and bourbon are all you really need, and they’re also all you really need to know about Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar. It has lovingly put our native spirit on display for their farewell to summer cocktail, Lady Geisha. This burst of warmth is a "sweet blend of Old Forester Signature bourbon, cinnamon pear syrup, Mathilde Poire liqueur, ginger, and lemon juice." For the shrub lover, order up The Golden Cup. It packs a kick with a spicy habanero shrub, blended with Old Forester 86 and cooled down with a little cucumber.
New Albany, Ind.
There’s fun to be had across the river, too
The Exchange Pub and Kitchen is one of those spots just over the bridge that’s got Louisvillians creeping into southern Indiana more and more often. Live music out on the patio and even livelier fare indoors on the plate. Grab a classic Old Fashioned or wrap your mouth around The Fall Basics, which combines Tito’s vodka, St. Elizabeth allspice dram, pumpkin, and espresso syrup.
The throwback bar that feels like home
Owned in part by the owner of renowned bourbon bar The Silver Dollar, The Pearl of Germantown (or “The Pearl” to locals) offers a nod to the past in the form of a corner tavern. In fact, the spot actually was a corner tavern for years -- this one is just a bit more self-aware. Pickled bar snacks and sandwiches help sell the throwback appeal of the place, but it’s the cocktails that keep people coming back. And a roulette game that enables you to win a cheap shot of your favorite booze doesn’t hurt either.
A fresh, new concept in a friendly location
Many mourned the demise of Cahoots, but Club Nirvana, which has taken its place in the sweet spot of the Highlands, is out to make its predecessor a distant memory. If the former was a laid-back hangout for bar snacks and billiards, Club Nirvana aims to be a more lively entry into the neighborhood, with live music, a full menu, and a fully-stocked bar for mixing your favorite cocktail. And hey, if it’s a cheap beer and a bar to hang by, you can do that too.
Hot downtown bar with a speakeasy feel
This nook in the NuLu corridor feels for all the world like a speakeasy, with its tight environs, reclaimed wood, and exposed brick, and sitting at the bar will have you waiting for guys in pinstripe suits and fedoras to walk in. In reality, Taj is more of a neighborhood bar with some killer cocktails and craft beers. Try yourself a Bourbonrita (a version of the Mexican classic made with bourbon instead of tequila) or a Maloney-O (a three-finger pour of your choice with a splash of water).
The basement bar with all that jazz
Upstairs is a long-standing sandwich shop where Downtown professionals dine by day. But downstairs is Jimmy Can’t Dance, a sultry jazz bar mixing up reasonably priced cocktails with a side of live smoothness. Exposed brick and beams, intimate table lighting, and a neon sign reminding us that “we’re all animals” make the bottom half of the old structure a different world, one rocking a speakeasy vibe where a diverse crowd gathers to groove and sip cocktails. If you're a big fan of New Orleans, you'll love it here.
Bourbon meets Bakersfield in a former firehouse
Set in the former home of a horse-and-carriage firehouse dating back to the late 1800s, The Silver Dollar is a widely-renowned bourbon bar in a bourbon crazy state. Spinning country music and serving up whiskey by the drink (even the neon sign trumpets this fact), it’s at once a tribute to the Bakersfield, California sound and working-class aesthetic. You can pony up three bucks for the whiskey of the day or even less for a Miller High Life, or you can opt for the Pappy Van Winkle -- assuming it’s in your budget. Either way, there’s plenty for your lips to like, even if your liver is doing all the work.
An offbeat gem in Germantown
Hidden away in what once was the dive bar known as Club 21, The Cure Lounge is a nod to the British band of the same name. Set in a neighborhood where corner pubs have been the tradition, The Cure Lounge is more like what you might find tucked away in a New York alleyway, with its curious decor, live music, wild events, and eclectic clientele. Part of the attraction is that The Cure Lounge has a chic feel, while the cocktails and craft beers are surprisingly affordable. You can chill out at the bar or find a cozy spot in the lounge area while you wait for the band to get started.
A former theater is now a high-end lounge
Formerly a neighborhood movie theater -- a long time ago, folks -- the Hilltop building is now home to Red Herring, a cool, retro-meets-modern cocktail bar set in a space that invites rampant socialization. Downstairs is the main bar and plenty of tables for grabbing a snack or a small plate, while upstairs is a laid-back lounge. With exposed brick, remnants of the former theater, and its double-layer design, one almost forgets the massive cocktail program that features a drink list called the 100 Classics. If you hope to try one of each, you’d better have a designated driver.