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 our version is certainly famous.
However, 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 and support, not just because of them being featured on our bucket list.
This post is a part of our series on North Carolina food, where we’ve covered restaurants throughout the state. We originally created it on July 19, 2019. It has been maintained and updated, as of October 28, 2019.
North Carolina Barbecue Guide
A lot of the background information we’ll share 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.
Fun NC BBQ Facts
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
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.
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.
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.
We included the City Hall Pits in this guide to a weekend in Lexington if you’d like to see them up close and personal.
Lexington-Style Barbecue Restaurants
Alston Bridges Barbecue
Facebook | 620 E Grover St, Shelby
You can’t talk about Cleveland County without Red and Alston Bridges. While it is often assumed that Red and Alston were related, they actually were not. Both men did train under Warner Stamey and continued his legacy of Lexington-style barbecue in Cleveland County.
Today, Reid Bridges continues his grandfather’s tradition of smoking delicious meat. Using the same distributor for his short shank shoulders that Alston did, this barbecue joint is packed from open to close.
With no fancy sides and just a couple of varieties on how you want your meat, Alston Bridges is where you go for juicy legacy barbecue.
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 (again, 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!
Website | 100 Smokehouse Lane, Lexington
Wayne has been 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 in 1980, changed the name.
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. You’ll want a cold sweet tea while chowing down. 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! The 3.5 pound banana split is akin to an Olympic sport, where many have attempted to finish it but few actually do!
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 | 1317 Winston Rd
Toot! Toot! Speedy’s is one of the few barbecue establishments left in Lexington that does curbside service. With ‘cue and beyond flying out the window six days a week, it’s clear that Speedy’s is a popular choice among the locals.
Family-owned since 1970, Speedy’s is not only known for its fast service but also, ginormous portions. Convince me otherwise, but a plate of barbecue from Speedy’s could arguably be breakfast, lunch, and dinner!
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.
And interestingly, you’ll find traditional white slaw instead of red at them all. 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 consists 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.
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.
No Website | 751 State Rd 1204, Greenville
In a simple-looking corner building on B’s Barbecue Road in Greenville, there is magic happening inside. At B’s Barbecue, you either line up outside for to-go orders or step inside for a seat.
Regardless of what time you show up, there will be a line. Open from 9:30 am to whenever they run out, you’ll know if they’re open when cars overflow the parking lot out into the road.
Alongside the melt-in-your-mouth whole hog, you can find their vinegar sauce peppered throughout the building in Crown Whiskey bottles. Another unique detail at B’s is their crunchy, crispy, and oh-so-delicious cornbread sticks!
Bum’s Restaurant and Catering
Facebook | 566 3rd St, Ayden
Bum’s Restaurant in Ayden is family-owned and more than just wood-smoked North Carolina barbecue. It’s been open since 1963 when “Bum” Dennis wanted to serve more than just barbecue and cooked up country-style food for everyone to enjoy.
It is one of the only barbecue stops in Eastern North Carolina that has a stocked buffet table of freshly prepared sides including black-eyed peas, boiled potatoes, and garden-fresh collards.
In addition to incredibly juicy, delicious barbecue, Bum’s also fries up some of the tastiest fried chicken. And when the lady building your tray asks if you want their World Famous Banana Pudding, just say, “Yes Ma’am.”
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.
Website | 2514 US-301, Wilson
You know the moment you drive by Parker’s Barbecue that it’s going to be amazing. The parking lot is packed from open to close and if you think you’re going to score a table on Mother’s Day, you’d better be ready to wait for a while!
Parker’s opened in 1946, and not much has changed since then.
The wait staff still wears paper hats and nicely pressed white shirts while carrying heavy trays as quickly as possible, keeping the service is just as good as the food. Up to 150 whole hogs get smoked each week and Parker’s serves more than 20,000 customers.
This is also one of the few barbecue joints in North Carolina that is open for breakfast. I mean, who wouldn’t want vinegar and peppery smoked delicious meat for breakfast!?
Stop by Parker’s while driving through the area but you know you can always make it a weekend in Wilson if you want to take things slow.
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!
Non-Traditional, Contemporary Players
Buxton Hall Barbecue
Website | 32 Banks Ave, Asheville
In a former wood-floored roller rink, two James Beard nominees with completely different backgrounds have collaborated to make amazing Eastern Carolina barbecue in Western North Carolina.
With restaurateur Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani, Buxton Hall was born for the two gentlemen to chase their barbecue dreams.
The reason Buxton Hall falls into our “non-traditional” section is that they honor a little bit of every Southern barbecue tradition.
With sauces ranging from the traditional Eastern Vinegar and Lexington Red, you will also find Alabama White Sauce and even South Carolina hash on the menu.
We also included Buxton Hall among these must-eat restaurants in Asheville!
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
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.”
We mentioned a meal at Fowler’s as a must when spending a weekend in Fayetteville.
The Honey Hog
Facebook | 4629 Fallston Rd, Fallston
Did you know that there is only one barbecue restaurant in North Carolina that is literally farm to fork? The Honey Hog in Fallston only smokes pigs raised on their farm 5 miles down the road and you truly can taste the difference.
Nightly specials and the melt-in-your-mouth pork brings people from everywhere into this sleepy Cleveland County town. Johnny Ray’s smokey flavor is revolutionizing the barbecue world and we are here for it!
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 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.
Website | 403 Knightdale Station Run, Knightdale
From Champion pitmaster and celebrated chef Christopher Prieto, PRIME Barbecue is looking to making Knightdale, North Carolina a barbecue destination. Shying away from North Carolina tradition, PRIME shines in their exquisite attention to detail to each meat smoked.
Opening in March/April 2020, PRIME is where you’ll find Texas, North Carolina, and Kansas City flavors fuse together. Melt in your mouth brisket, perfectly hand packed sausages, and the best ribs you’ll ever taste- Prieto takes his years of barbecue research and perfects it on your plate.
Redneck BBQ Lab
Website | 12101-B NC Hwy 210, Benson
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 latticework 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 North Carolina barbecue is hard. We know that everyone has a favorite and that we may not have covered it. Our state 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!