America's Best Karaoke Bars
The new reality-television show Killer Karaoke challenges contestants to sing while enduring physical challenges. As if taking the mic at a karaoke bar isn’t a form of torture in itself for many of us. Yet across the country, karaoke is booming.
Some devotees brave public humiliation for the opportunity to blow off steam. “I love karaoke not for the singing but for the performance,” says Joe Fairless, a New York City career coach. “It gives me an excuse to scream at the top of my lungs, jump up and down, and laugh at my friends.” Others need a little liquid courage to embrace their inner exhibitionist. “You get two shots of whiskey in me and the promise of Kris Kross's 'Jump,' and I'm happy,” says Sara Nachlis, a video researcher from Long Beach, CA.
Whatever the motivation, it’s easier than ever to find a karaoke bar, whether you prefer to front a live band at rock-n-roll karaoke nights or holler with friends in your own traditional Korean-style room. Our favorite karaoke bars guarantee a memorable night and, for travelers, the chance to sample a local scene while trying out that new song in a place you won’t be back any time too soon.
In Nashville, serious aspiring country singers come to show off their chops over karaoke at the Nashville dive bar Lonnie’s. Good Luck Karaoke in Dallas gets creative with downright weird theme nights like American folklore (“Carnie-oke”) and revenge of the nerds, while Palm Tree LA takes the nightclub approach to karaoke, with private rooms complete with bottle service and red leather couches.
Karaoke (“empty orchestra” in Japanese) dates back to the 1970s, when a Kobe-based drummer merged an eight-track player with a microphone. The first stateside karaoke bar opened in Los Angeles in 1982, and the rise of boy bands and karaoke references in pop culture—notably Scarlett Johansson’s scene in the film Lost in Translation—helped popularize the habit and spawn all-American variations. The Hip Hop Karaoke NYC series hosts occasional rap competitions, and San Jose’s Treatbot, a "Karaoke Ice Cream Truck from the Future,” rewards any singers with free ice cream.
So ready for your 15 minutes of…something? One of these karaoke bars is surely playing your song.
CIRCUS, Columbus, OH
Monday is punk rock karaoke night, but why belt out one number when you and your friends can butcher an entire album? At CIRCUS, locals—including a lively student contingent from the adjacent Ohio State campus—recently performed Radiohead’s entire OK Computer song list.
Gagopa, New York City
There’s no street-level sign, so keep an eye out for the neon lettering three floors up on the exterior of 28 W. 32nd St. that signals this Koreatown favorite of those in the know. Each of the venue’s traditional private rooms comes with an impressive songbook filled with tunes ranging from Korean pop hits to Willie Nelson jams—plus your very own tambourine. And unlike at other K-Town hangouts, you’re welcome to bring your own wine or beer.
Good Luck Karaoke, Dallas
Themed karaoke parties are nothing new, but Good Luck Karaoke in Dallas gets especially creative. Every Thursday night, hosts Josh Hammertimez and Oliver Pecker (nope, not their real names) throw one-of-a-kind singing extravaganzas with downright weird themes based on anything from American folklore (“Carnie-oke”) to Mexican holidays (“Karaoke de los Muertos”).
Palm Tree LA, Los Angeles
Directions to Koreatown’s Palm Tree LA suggest a scavenger hunt: “First, enter the decrepit-looking shopping plaza. Then, take the creaky elevator to the fourth floor and walk through the secret entrance….” Once inside, you’ll find yourself caught up in the club-tastic atmosphere as you and up to 30 of your closest friends party in private rooms complete with bottle service and red leather couches.
Kajun’s Karaoke, New Orleans
Tourist-clogged Cat’s Meow in New Orleans’ French Quarter claims to be the best karaoke bar in the world, but Kajun’s Pub in the Big Easy’s Faubourg Marigny neighborhood boasts a bigger song selection (50,000) and a refreshingly diverse crowd. It takes the nightly karaoke so seriously that when the bar lost power during Hurricane Isaac, the show went on. (And on.)
Kostume Karaoke, Washington, D.C.
Karaoke gets kitschier thanks to this recurring series that encourages participants to sport kooky outfits to complement their vocal stylings. And no need to worry if you arrive without a goofy ensemble in tow—a treasure chest of hats, wigs, and props “to make you look awesome” awaits you.
Karaoke plus Mexican food: what’s not to love? Each weekend, hordes of amateur singers take over the stage at Tarasco’s Mexican Restaurant. There’s a disco ball, a fog machine, and margaritas aplenty—probably a good thing for performers and innocent bystanders alike.
Dino’s Lounge, Las Vegas
With ’70s décor and a haze of secondhand smoke, Dino’s is the place to channel your inner lounge singer. The Sin City institution offers “the best karaoke in the west,” according to an enthusiastic Yelp reviewer, and hosts a Drunk of the Month competition. Have enough fun crooning, and one of the bartenders just might nominate you.
Arlene’s Grocery, New York City
Channel your inner rock star at this former bodega and butcher shop, now a Lower East Side music institution where Jeff Buckley, The Strokes, and other made-it-big acts have played. Arlene’s Grocery features live karaoke, meaning that for a few precious minutes you get to front as the lead singer of a real band.
Have a friend who can’t stop quoting favorite movies? Send him or her to Chicago’s Movieoke, in which performers reenact film scenes instead of songs and recite subtitles instead of lyrics—with feeling. Wannabe actors can choose from more than 200 films, from Casablanca to The Big Lebowski.
Nico’s Recovery Room, Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood attracts both old-timers and hipsters, especially to Nico’s Recovery Room, where both contingents exist in perfect (ahem) harmony during the Steel City’s best karaoke event, held on Saturday nights. The quirky dive bar has no stage, so enthusiastic onlookers form a “dance circle” around each singer.
Lonnie’s Western Room, Nashville
Formerly a piano bar called The Voodoo Room, Lonnie’s has a stage that looks like it’s in a basement. But don’t let first appearances fool you: this is where serious aspiring country singers come to show off their chops over karaoke. As one patron posted to Yelp, “The only fancy thing about Lonnie’s is the singing.”