An Atlanta Nightlife Primer

Appreciate Atlanta’s wealth of queer nightlife options

Atlanta isn’t just the regional hub of gay nightlife for the Southeast; it’s one of the top cities in the country for nightclubbing, bar-hopping, coffeehouse-crawling, and all-around merriment. Gay and lesbian revelers save up much of their energy for Saturday nights, but there’s usually something exciting going on at area clubs any night of the week. Visitors and recent transplants appreciate Atlanta’s wealth of queer nightlife options and also the air of friendliness and openness.

You can always find a drag show in Atlanta (RuPaul got started here) – everything from serious, traditional shows staged by strikingly realistic-looking female impersonators to campy productions headlined by saucy, foul-mouthed divas. Glitzy warehouse-style dance clubs are also common. And don’t overlook the city’s esteemed music scene: Several famous bands hail from Atlanta and environs, including the Indigo Girls, R.E.M., and the B-52s.

One drawback to partying in Atlanta is that the layout and topography favor driving over walking or even using public transportation. Many gay clubs and coffeehouses are in Midtown, a neighborhood rife with gay-friendly eateries, boutiques, and hotels. So if you’re planning a long night of revelry, try staying at one of the better hotels here, among them – the Four Seasons, the Hotel W, the Biltmore Suites, and the Hilton Garden Inn Midtown.

Virtually every queer clubster – male or female – in Atlanta eventually makes it to Backstreet, one of the most celebrated gay discos in the country; this multilevel circuit-style disco is open 24 hours. Visitors must buy a membership (good for three months); there’s an additional cover on Fridays and Saturdays. Don’t miss Backstreet’s notorious X-rated drag cabaret hosted by the bawdy Charlie Brown. Because the Armory nightclub, known for its cheap drinks and cruisy ambience, is nearly adjacent to Backstreet, lots of guys wander back and forth between both places. There are several bars and dance floors at the Armory; the best assets are the patio and spacious roof deck. Blu, noted for its fantastic sound system and laser light shows, is the city’s Saturday-night after-hours club (it does not have an alcohol license). The crowd of shirtless club bunnies generally reaches capacity around 2 or 3 in the morning.

Of stand-and-model video bars, Blake’s has the most desirable, though uppity, reputation. There’s a cozy and crowded main bar with bar stools, but these guys and gals are known to bare claws and fangs to capture them. A flight of stairs leads to a quieter video bar, off which you’ll find a sun porch and patio. Burkhart’s is one of the nicest video bars in town – the kind of place where you can walk up and chat with a stranger, hear both classic and current dance tunes, and jump right in to play pool with the regulars. In the same shopping center, you’ll find the newer video bar Oscar’s, which has become quite popular with guy-next-door types; spacious Colours, which draws a largely African-American crowd for dancing and cruising, thanks in part to its outstanding DJs spinning Latin and hip-hop tunes; and Felix’s, a low-decibel neighborhood bar popular with the over-35 set. Midtown also has a few mainstream spots with dedicated gay followings, among them Eleven50, a swank lounge-cum-art gallery that presents local and national rock concerts, and the ultra-cool Halo, a futuristic three-floor dance lounge inhabited by pretty, see-and-be-seen types.

The groovy suburb of Decatur, which borders Atlanta to the east, claims the region’s definitive lesbian club, My Sister’s Room. This homey, happy spot has trendy furnishings, big couches, a small outdoor stage that presents live acoustic music, and a restaurant serving light fare. An age-varied crowd frequents this hip nightspot where the emphasis is on socializing, not necessarily cruising and drinking. Decatur, by the way, has an engaging downtown with outstanding restaurants and many cool independent shops; it’s also home to the acclaimed live-music club, Eddie’s Attic, where the Indigo Girls became famous. There’s also Tower II, a dance club southeast of downtown Atlanta; it hosts open-mic poetry events some evenings and draws a racially mixed, mostly under-30 crowd.

Back in Midtown, Bulldogs draws an almost even mix of black and white guys – of all ages. It’s along a busy stretch of Peachtree Street, with an attractive private deck, several small indoor cocktail bars, and a lively but compact dance floor. Hoedown’s is a slick contemporary space with upscale decor but down-home country-western music and dancing. And the Atlanta Eagle is a favorite with leather men and bearish guys – it has an on-site boutique. Just north of Midtown, the Heretic exudes machismo. A strict leather or uniform dress code is enforced some nights and always encouraged. The cruising here can get very physical. And if getting physical is your aim, head to Flex, Atlanta’s only bathhouse, open 24 hours and with a heated indoor pool, clothing-optional sundeck, and both lockers and private cabins.

Metro is the city’s top draw for fans of go-go dancers – it’s also open later than most bars. Particularly appealing is the landscaped deck at the back of the building. Monday’s amateur strip night packs in the crowds. Other spots for watching male strippers include Pin-Up’s, which claims the largest all-nude revue in the South (it also has drag shows on some weekdays), and Swinging Richards, which employs a stable of some 75 performers. The Chamber is a mixed gay/straight fetish club where you can watch a variety of fascinating, kinky demonstrations representing every conceivable sexual taste. Goth music sets the tone for this den of exhibitionism.

In gentrified East Atlanta, a haven of artists and alternative types, check out Mary’s, which may be the coolest gay neighborhood bar in the city. This narrow bilevel space with mod furnishings and great music draws a more cerebral and artsy bunch than some of the city’s cruisier hangouts, and it’s equally popular among women and men. Other friendly neighborhood spots include cozy Tripps, which has some fun drag shows and some of the nicest barkeeps in town; Miss Q’s, a place to chit-chat, play pool and darts, and watch TV; racially diverse Model T, also with a notable drag following; and the long-running Buddies, which is just a casual no-nonsense bar with low attitude. Woof’s on Piedmont is Atlanta’s gay sports bar, with TV screens broadcasting live games and events and uniforms, banners, and similar-such memorabilia lining the walls. And Rico’s on Ponce is popular for its Sunday late-afternoon cookouts, held on a large deck with great views of the downtown skyline; downstairs is longtime locals’ drinkery, the Midtown Saloon.

If you should find yourself stuck in Newt Gingrich country (Cobb County, just northwest of the city), pop over to Le Buzz, in Marietta, which has karaoke and drag shows periodically, dancing on weekends, and free pool on Mondays. A newer option in the same area is the Breaking Point, a gay bar and grill welcoming a mixed-gender crowd and featuring drag and strip shows plus great dance music.

Of the many stylish coffeehouses in Atlanta, Aurora Coffee is a great option with a few gay-popular branches – these attractive, postmodern spaces have ample cushy seating. Close to Piedmont Park, Apres Diem offers inexpensive and tasty food, creative coffee drinks, and a full bar – it’s open till 2 a.m. on weekends and has an inviting patio. The gay and lesbian bookshop Outwrite has a charming and often-packed espresso bar with comfy chairs.

Atlanta, especially Midtown, also has dozens of restaurants where lesbians and gays mingle and nosh. Consider Red Chair Restaurant and Martini Lounge, a trendy smoke-free space with a very good contemporary American restaurant and a cool lounge with 10-foot-tall video screens. Two longtime favorites, owned by the same folks, are Einstein’s and Joe’s On Juniper, which are great either before hitting the bars or, on weekends, for brunch. Joe’s has a convivial bar with a long menu of martinis, bottled beers, and single-malts scotches. If you’re new in town, either of these neighboring establishments can be ideal for kicking off a night of bar-going.

Related: 72 Hours in Atlanta