Every barbecue region in the US has its own style. In Texas it’s brisket. In Kansas City it’s burnt ends. In Memphis the specialty is ribs. But in North Carolina, the name of the game is pork – both the shoulder and whole hog, where the entire animal is cooked low and slow. Pit style is where the North Carolina barbecue tradition began, and you can see this cooking method still used throughout the state. After it’s cooked, the pork is often chopped up and served on a plate or in a sandwich. While there are different variations, the sauce used with the barbecue in North Carolina is generally vinegar-based, which is a departure from the smoky red variety often containing molasses that’s seen in other parts of the country. Now that you know a little about how the state likes to cook and serve its meat, maybe it’s time to plan a North Carolina BBQ road trip!
Barbecue is taken so seriously here that there’s a North Carolina Historic Barbecue Trail that was created by the North Carolina Barbecue Society. Following the stops on this trail make it easy to take a drive around the state and enjoy the variety of barbecue styles and sides. Let’s eat!
Skylight Inn, Ayden
If you want a simple whole hog barbecue meal, then Skylight is the spot. Open since 1947, you can get a pork barbecue sandwich, chicken, some coleslaw and cornbread, plus a few other assorted sides. If you have a lot of mouths to feed, you can also get meat by the pound.
Bum’s Restaurant, Ayden
That’s right, this town of less than 5,000 people has another listing on the barbecue trail. Bum’s advertises wood-cooked BBQ (aka, pork), and they’ve been doing it since 1963. One thing that makes Bum’s a little different from other places on our list is their buffet of vegetable sides like collard greens and rutabaga, which often come from their local garden.
B’s Barbecue & Grill, Greenville
This stop on the barbecue trail is no-frills, but so popular that people line up when they open around 9:00 AM and the meat is often gone by lunchtime. You can order your chicken, pork and sides at the window and find a spot at a picnic table if the weather is nice. There are a few tables indoors that may or may not be available, so plan to eat in your car if necessary.
Wilber’s Barbecue, Goldsboro
Here you’ll get whole hog barbecue cooked overnight over oak wood in an open pit. In addition to the usual plates of pork and chicken and sides like coleslaw, you can also get dishes like fried okra and Brunswick stew at Wilber’s. Look out for their daily menu features like turkey barbecue, fried flounder on Friday’s and chicken pastry.
Grady’s Barbecue, Dudley
Not to be confused with the barbecue purveyor of the same name in Texas, Grady’s is reportedly the only Black-owned barbecue spot in North Carolina. You’ll get whole hog barbecue here, cooked the open pit way since 1986. In addition, Grady’s serves sandwiches, chicken (both barbecued and fried) and sides including black-eyed peas and butter beans. You should also save room for sweet potato pie!
Stephenson’s Bar-B-Que, Willow Spring
Stephenson’s is one place on the list that looks like a regular restaurant from the outside. That being said, it’s still an unpretentious, fast-food style establishment dishing out chopped pork, chicken, hush puppies and more for over 30 years. Also look out for regional specials like Brunswick stew.
Hursey’s Bar-B-Q, Burlington
Like many others on the list, Hursey’s has been around for decades (since 1949, to be precise) and pit cooks its pork over hickory. They have five locations throughout North Carolina, including three in Burlington, a city of just under 60,000 people. Hursey’s serves a wide array of dishes, including fried chicken and seafood for those who are not into barbecue. For those who came for the pit-smoked meat, you can get plates of chopped pork or ribs.
Stamey’s Barbecue, Greensboro
Now we’re getting into the Lexington-style barbecue – popular in the western parts of North Carolina – at Stamey’s. This style uses the pork shoulder and features a red sauce that has vinegar, tomatoes, red pepper flakes and other seasonings. Stamey’s cooks theirs overnight over hardwood coals, and has been doing it since 1930. You can get chopped pork or chicken here, alongside sides like hushpuppies, vinegar-based slaw and collard greens. Save a little room for a piece of peach cobbler, if you dare.
Fuzzy’s Bar-B-Q, Madison
Open since 1954, Fuzzy’s serves “Piedmont North Carolina-style barbecue” cooked over hickory. While you can also get breakfast here (and salads), you’re probably visiting for the barbecue. Order chopped pork or chicken as a plate or sandwich, and you’ll get it served with the region’s standard slaw and hushpuppies.
Real Q, Winston-Salem
Drive to the outskirts of the city for some pit-cooked Lexington-style barbecue. Open since 1991, this is one of the youngest barbecue purveyors on this road trip, even though more than 30 years is nothing to sneeze at in the restaurant world. You’ll get chopped pork shoulder cooked over wood coals here, along with a variety of sandwiches and sides. Real Q also has specials on different days of the week, like ribs and barbecue chicken.
Bar-B-Q Center, Lexington
This meat mecca actually started out across the street in the 1950s serving ice cream. You can still get ice cream here, but the Barbecue Center is now the “oldest barbecue establishment in downtown Lexington that still cooks on pits”, according to the restaurant’s website. The go-to source for Lexington-style barbecue, you can choose the kind of meat you get and how fatty it is. It’s pre-sauced with the vinegar-based variety typical of the style, and you’ll get a slaw on the side of your meat that aims to offset its fatty richness. While the menu is vast, stick to the basics of chopped pork or chicken on a plate or in a sandwich and you won’t go wrong.
BBQ King, Lincolnton
Yes, you can get the usual pit-smoked barbecue at this establishment that’s been around since 1971, but BBQ King also has a selection of burgers and other sandwiches. Round out your meal with onion rings, hushpuppies and slaw.
Switzerland Cafe, Little Switzerland
You’ll find this seasonal barbecue restaurant along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway in a ski area outside Marion called Little Switzerland. They’ve been serving pork barbecue here for more than 30 years, along with specialties like smoked trout. Just be aware that because of its mountainous location, Switzerland Cafe is only open from March to November, depending on the weather.
Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, Shelby
Open since 1946 in various locations in Cleveland County, Red Bridges is now in a retro building with a pig on the roof. You’ll find the region’s usual pit-smoked pork and chicken on the menu here alongside oddities like a deviled egg sandwich and BBQ nachos.
Hubba Hubba Smokehouse, Flat Rock
This seasonal wood-fired smokehouse is a great place to head in the summer for some barbecue meat and a beer. You order at a window and find a seat at an outdoor table. Unlike most of the other stops on the barbecue trail, this one strays from only pork and chicken, and serves brisket and ribs as well. There are also some sides like pimento cheese grits, succotash and apple slaw that you don’t find at every barbecue spot in North Carolina.