North Carolina barbecue ranks just as high as politics on the list of things you don’t want to bring up at the dinner table or among strangers. Slow-cooking meat and its four elements (smoke, acid, salt, and spice) aren’t unique to our state, but what makes NC BBQ stand out is the way our pitmasters tend to their creation before and after smoking it. There’s Lexington-style, Eastern-style, and a whole lot of names that have gotten us to today’s ‘cue. In this guide, we’ll cover the differences, talk about the big names, and share our favorite North Carolina barbecue restaurants that you need to visit.
This post is a part of our series on North Carolina food, where we’ve covered restaurants throughout the state.
North Carolina Barbecue Guide
Fun NC BBQ Facts
In the late 1800s, there were two hogs for every human in the Southern states. Even today, North Carolina has more hogs than people, only second to Iowa. However, Smithfield Incorporated opened the world’s largest meat processing plant in Bladen County in 1992. It processes over eight million hogs a year.
The Wilmington Barbecue
Before the Boston Tea Party, there was the Wilmington Barbecue. Take that, Boston! In 1766, Royal Governor William Tryon held a BBQ for the New Hanover Militia. Since the local Sons of Liberty were still pissed about the Stamp Act, the responded by pouring out beer and throwing smoked meat into the nearby river.
Sit-down Barbecue Roots
The state’s first sit-down barbecue restaurant was established in 1924. Bob Melton’s Barbecue in Rocky Mount wood-fired hogs until 2003 when their relocation after Hurricane Floyd proved unsuccessful. But before Bob Melton, there was Reverend Adam Scott from Goldsboro. He started selling cue out of his back door in 1917. Scott’s BBQ is no longer operating but you can still get his famous sauce!
East versus West
There’s long been tension between East versus West when talking North Carolina Barbecue. It peaked in 1995 when the annual North Carolina Championship Pork Cook-Out (Eastern-style) occurred in conjunction with the Lexington Barbecue Festival. In 2005, fourth-graders from Lexington’s Friedburg Elementary School proposed the Lexington Barbecue Festival to become the official State Barbecue Festival. Backed by Davidson County Representatives, the bill sparked outrage and quickly died. It was reintroduced in 2007 with a slight change and passed, making the Lexington Barbecue Festival the official “State Food Festival.” Even still, Senators across the state were not happy. Later revisions changed its moniker to the “Food Festival of the Triad.”
And that brings us to a breakdown of East versus West, with some barbecue restaurants you should visit in each region of North Carolina.
North Carolina Barbecue Restaurants
Before we cover North Carolina’s best barbecue restaurants from west to east, I want to preface that this is just the beginning. We’ve made it a mission to only write about places we’ve personally visited and sauced ourselves. While building this list, we leaned heavily on the NC BBQ Society’s BBQ Trail. To appear on the trail, the restaurant’s meat must be wood- or charcoal- smoked, make their own sauce, and have a pit that has been operating continuously for twelve or more years. In this guide, we do include more restaurants off the trail and designate why we think they are noteworthy. The list will grow as we continue to visit places throughout North Carolina because we know that there are so many pitmasters worth recognizing! Now, let’s get onto the pork talk!
Lexington-style barbecue history reads like a family tree, starting with Sid Weaver. In 1919 he started selling cue out of a tent in the middle of town. Soon after, Jesse Swicegood joined him and now Lexington has more than fifteen barbecue restaurants. These men trained other chefs including Warner Stamey and even today pitmasters in Lexington to use Weaver and Swicegood’s methods with only a slight variation. Lexington-style uses only the pork shoulder smoked long and slow over hickory until it is fall-apart tender. Basted with a “dip” of tomato, vinegar and perhaps some spice, the smoked meat is served traditionally with a slaw also containing tomato, making it red.
Lexington-style Goes Even Deeper
Can you imagine doing renovations on a building only to come across the strong sweet smell of burnt hickory? In 2005, that’s exactly what happened at Lexington City Hall when demolition crews uncovered pits from one of the city’s first brick-and-mortar restaurants, Beck’s Barbecue. Learning under Sid Weaver, Alton Beck opened Beck’s on West Center Street in 1938 and remained open for 31 years. Now, a piece of NC BBQ history remains in uptown Lexington.
Lexington-style Barbecue Restaurants
Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge
Website | 2000 East Dixon Blvd, Shelby
Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge has been smoking meat over hickory all night and day for 72 years. While Warner Stamey was in Shelby, he taught his technique of smoking pork shoulders over hickory coals to Alston Bridges and Red Bridges (no relation). After Red’s passing, his wife Lyttle took over the business. She still makes an appearance occasionally, but the restaurant is run by their daughter. In true Western NC BBQ fashion, the pork at Bridges is served chopped or sliced and comes with a thick tomato sauce and tangy red coleslaw. If you want some extra veggies, ask for their famous barbecue salad—lettuce, tomato-sauced barbecue, and house dressing. Oh, and don’t forget to leave room for that banana pudding!
We included Red Bridges and other great restaurants in Shelby in our guide to a weekend in Cleveland County!
Website | 100 Smokehouse Lane, Lexington
Carolina barbecue isn’t often thought of as refined, like what you’ll find at Lexington BBQ. But in 2003, the James Beard Foundation awarded Wayne Monk an America’s Classic Award. Smoking meat since 1962, when he accidentally took a job at a local barbecue stand as a curb hop. When the restaurant was originally opened, it was called Honey Monk’s, a combination of Monk and his partner’s name. They didn’t just serve barbecue, but after his partner left the business Monk started focusing only on the barbecue and changed the name in 1980. Using mostly oak because too much hickory produces hot coals and can burn the hogs, Monk smokes his meat sans-marinade and sauces it on the plate. Chow down with a cold sweet tea and make sure to order some of Monk’s daughters peach cobbler!
Facebook | 900 N Main St, Lexington
You’d never know that this always-packed restaurant with the bright neon sign was once an ice cream store. One winter when less ice cream was going out the window, a pork shoulder went in the pit and Bar-B-Q Center was born. Many pork lovers come for the smoked meat, but smart ones leave enough room for their famous banana split!
Smiley’s Lexington BBQ
Facebook | 917 Winston Rd, Lexington
Smiley’s has been smoking pork shoulder since the 1950s and remains a Western BBQ institution. Pitmaster Steve Yountz smokes his meat low and slow (10 to 12 hours) to maintain moisture and you can taste his careful attention and patience. Served up with an authentic Lexington style “dip,” Smiley’s is definitely worth writing home to momma about!
Important note: Smiley’s is open on Sunday! Not only are they open, but they only serve their famous banana pudding and homemade Mac-n-cheese on Sundays!
Website |Burlington, Graham, & Mebane
Four generations have hickory-smoked pork shoulder for the people of Alamance County at Hursey’s. Said to have started over some drinks and friends in their backyard, the Hursey family’s barbecue expanded into three locations where interestingly, you’ll find traditional white slaw instead of red. Hursey’s smokes over 1,200 shoulders per week (75/25 percent hickory and oak), but their hickory-smoked ham is also well-loved!
Website | 2206 W. Gate City Blvd, Greensboro
We’ve mentioned family connections with NC BBQ and Stamey’s is another great example. Lexington-style barbecue godfathers Jess Swicegood and Sid Weaver taught their style to Warner Stamey, who then shared secrets with his brother-in-law Alston Bridges and Red Bridges while he was in Shelby. The pit building at Stamey’s is one of the largest and best equipped in the state and consist of ten brick fireplaces lining a rectangle building. Stamey’s is still a family business (since 1930) with Warner’s grandson Chip Stamey running the pits. Smoked over hot coals, shoulders typically take six hours. Stamey’s chopped barbecue and sweet tangy slaw are finger-licking good.
Hill’s Lexington Barbecue
Facebook | 4005 N Patterson Ave, Winston-Salem
Controversy hits when you talk about Hill’s. While there were roadside joints set up by NC BBQ legends Stamey, Beck, and Swicegood in 1951, Hill’s was the first to claim to be the “original Lexington Barbecue.” Drama aside, this is a place worth visiting. You can order your pork chopped, pulled, sliced, or blocked and taste the woody smoke flavor in every bite!
Note: Hill’s is open Sunday but closed on Monday, which is fine in our books.
Eastern-style was a product of entrepreneurial spirit. Many of the restaurants were started as a way for pig farmers to generate more income. While most of the establishments in Eastern North Carolina were white-owned, many of the cooks were African-American. The love for smoke, vinegar, and pepper transcended color in this part of the state and everyone came together to love good ‘cue. Eastern-style barbecue is whole-hog, chopped, and served with traditional mayonnaise-based coleslaw.
Website | 4618 Lee St, Ayden
Skylight Inn‘s motto reads, “If it ain’t wood-fired, it ain’t BBQ” and we can see why after visiting this spot in Ayden. Sam Jones is the seventh generation pitmaster serving deliciousness inside this odd-shaped building resembling the US Capitol. One of the best parts of their barbecue is the crunch from crackling chopped in the meat. That salty and crunchy texture mixed with the juicy smoked meat is something that I promise you will never forget. Another remarkable appearance on the plate at Skylight is cornpone. Cornpone is a cousin to cornbread except it is denser because there are no eggs and sometimes even milk. Instead, cornpone is made with drippings, which notably from Skylight come from the hogs themselves.
Note: Remember to bring cash and don’t forget to take home some pork rinds!
Facebook | 11964 NC Hwy 50 North, Willow Springs
At Stephenson’s Barbecue, you’ll find red-checkered vinyl tablecloths, a bucket of perfectly crushed ice, and a pitcher of sweet tea along with some of the most delicious barbecue! It’s cooked over coals for seven hours and turned for another two, all before the delicious juicy meat is then left in the pits for six to eight hours to smoke. That causes the meat to drop slowly all night. It gets sauced in the kitchen, making the stuff from Stephenson’s BBQ perfectly moist without being greasy, and definitely worth traveling for!
Facebook | 3096 Arrington Bridge Rd, Dudley
Opening on July 4, 1986, Grady’s is an independence story for more than just when they first got started. Gerri Grady had lost her job and her husband, Steve, was inspired to find a way that they could work together. Steve worked in a lumberyard which gave him great access to wood, so they started Grady’s cooking barbecue the old fashioned way without any experience. But they say that they didn’t need experience because, as Steve explained to Our State, “I can cook a pig; I’ve always known how to cook a pig.” Their whole-hog barbecue is woodsy, tender, and has bits of red pepper popping throughout.
Non-Traditional, Contemporary Players
Clyde Cooper’s Barbecue
Website | 327 S Wilmington St, Raleigh
Until recently, Clyde Cooper’s Barbecue in Downtown Raleigh had only accepted cash, and while that might have changed, not much else has since 1938. Chopped, coarse, or sliced with an Eastern-style sauce makes Clyde’s an easy choice when you looking for food in Raleigh. What makes Clyde’s not fit into the Eastern-style category is that they aren’t whole-hog, but instead, they use grass-fed top-grade pork shoulders. If you’re not convinced, we think Clyde Copper knew pork was the secret to longevity after living to almost 100 years old. Just saying!
Fowler’s Southern Gourmet
Website | 723 West Rowan Street, Fayetteville
Fowler’s Southern Gourmet uses Cheshire Pork and whips up a mean pulled pork! Everything at this Fayetteville restaurant is made on-site, from the barbecue sauce to the ketchup. And owner Wade Fowler is proud that he sources as much as possible in his restaurant from North Carolina. His hogs come from Goldsboro, the chicken from Chapel Hill, and the oak for smoking comes from his own property in Fayetteville. Starting as a food truck in 2017, Fowler’s quickly opened a permanent location when the word got out about just how good they were. Grab yourself a pork plate, a side of smoked potato salad and jalapeno slaw and stay far away from that “Northern Tea.”
Website | Three Locations in Kinston and One in Snow Hill
With over three generations of smoke, King’s Restaurant ensures you’ll “oink if you love barbecue.” Frank King first opened up in 1936 as a country store and filling station outside of his farm to supplement his income. And now with four locations, Kings fills bellies from “Murphy to Manteo.” If you’re feeling really homesick for Eastern ‘cue, King’s ships with their Oink Express!
Website | 1647 Cole Mill Rd, Durham
Picnic is well-known for its whole hog BBQ and picnic tables outside. Go for the pulled pork or sway away from traditional NC BBQ with some brisket or some of their delicious fried chicken. Picnic pitmasters Wyatt Dickson and farmer Ryan Butler take farm-to-table seriously, with the distance from sty to fork a mere 12 miles.
We also included Picnic among our favorite must-eat casual restaurants in Durham!
Website | Raleigh & Durham
The Pit is kind of a big deal, thanks to various press features on Food Network, the Travel Channel, NBC’s “The Today Show”, Bon Appetit, Southern Living, and many more outlets. Compared to some of the other restaurants we’ve shared, The Pit is more upscale. Here, you can find craft cocktails, elevated Southern sides, and more than just pork. Using only North Carolina pigs, The Pit is whole-hog and pit-cooked, located in both the warehouse district of Downtown Raleigh and on Geer St in Downtown Durham.
Redneck BBQ Lab
Website | 12101-B NC Hwy 210, Benson
Redneck BBQ Lab is our go-to spot when driving toward the coast. It sits in a prime location at Exit 319 off I-40, otherwise known as McGee’s Crossroads in Johnston County. Unlike most of the other locally-owned North Carolina restaurants you’ll find, this place proudly serves competition-style BBQ. At Redneck, you can order chicken, pork ribs, brisket, or pork shoulder. Oh, and you can use the same rubs and sauces as they do in competition.
Hot Tip: Check their menu for specials, especially when those award-winning burnt ends are on the menu!
We also interviewed owner Jerry Stephenson before our first meal at Redneck BBQ Lab. You can read about it here.
Southern Smoke BBQ
Website | 29 Warren St, Garland
In the tiny town of Garland, be sure to arrive at least 30 minutes before, if not an hour, the sign flips to “open” at Southern Smoke BBQ. You’ll find people peeking into the window trying to get a look of what’s on the menu on Thursdays and Fridays when they’re open. This outdoor seating-only restaurant often sells out before it’s closing time. That’s not surprising when you have a taste of the delicious stuff that Matthew Register puts out. His ‘cue has a beautiful woodsy flavor hopefully, you’re lucky enough to be there on a day they’re serving ribs. After digging in, you might just think you’ve died and gone to culinary heaven.
Website | 9440 NC-226A, Little Switzerland
Don’t let the mountain location fool you, Switzerland Cafe off of the Blue Ridge Parkway dishes up some pork that will make you oink! If you mosey on to the back of this restaurant in Little Switzerland, you’ll find an unsuspecting shed with lattice work and a colorful mural. That’s the pit that smokes tender, nutty pork. We’ve also been told to not miss out on their applewood-smoked trout!
Website | 8304 Valley Blvd, Blowing Rock
If you’re hankering for either NC BBQ or Mexican food, why not have both in the same place? Woodland’s Barbeque is a quirky little spot bursting with flavors from the South and south of the border. Located off the main drag in Blowing Rock, diners can chow down on juicy pulled pork and ribs. They also serve the biggest wings you’ll ever see and delicious, homestyle Mexican food. With nightly entertainment and award-winning food, we think a meal at Woodland’s is a must and included it among our favorites in Blowing Rock!
Writing about barbecue is hard. We know that everyone has a favorite and that we may not have covered it. North Carolina is so incredibly lucky to have such a long and smoky history in pork. We are most certainly grateful to work on this project. We look forward to sharing more barbecue restaurants as we experience them, and would love to hear from you, too.
What’s your favorite place to grab North Carolina barbecue? If it’s not on the list, we definitely want to know more and can’t wait to verify the deliciousness in person!
A lot of the background information we’ve shared was sourced from Holy Smoke. This essential read by John Shelton Reed goes into even greater detail about North Carolina barbecue’s roots, styles, restaurants, and much more.