The United States is blessed with a vibrant diversity of barbecue styles, especially in the South. Drive from one state to the next—indeed, sometimes even from one county to another—and the barbecue is notably different. There’s no better way to sample this variety than a driving tour through the heart of the Barbecue Belt. We’ve mapped out a route that takes you from Alabama up to western Tennessee then across the Appalachians into the Carolinas. Whether you make it in stages or in one mammoth road trip, you’ll taste some of the most remarkable barbecue in the country.
Alabama is a barbecue melting pot. You’ll find chopped pork dressed in a tangy, tomato-laced vinegar sauce and Brunswick stew that’s akin to what they serve further to the east in Georgia. Plenty of restaurants serve barbecued beef, too, a dish more commonly associated with Texas. Hickory-smoked ribs are a staple, and the state can claim one unique feature all its own: white mayonnaise-based barbecue sauce. Once found only in a small pocket of Northern Alabama, that sauce has now migrated southward throughout the state and beyond.
Fly Southwest direct from Tampa to Birmingham. Start off in Birmingham, take a quick jog down to Tuscaloosa, then head up I-65 to Decatur before heading west to Memphis (three-hour drive on US-72).
Miss Myra’s Pit Bar-B-Q
3278 Cahaba Heights Road
Vestavia Hills, AL
(205) 967-6004 | missmyras.com
Just southeast of Birmingham in Vestavia Hills, the full range of Alabama barbecue can be sampled at Miss Myra’s. Pork, beef, ribs, ham and sausage are slow-cooked on the restaurant’s custom brick pits, but best of all is the chicken. Tender and juicy inside a mahogany jacket of smoke-bathed skin, it’s the perfect target for a generous drizzle of tangy Alabama white sauce. Be sure to try the sweet, gooey banana pudding, too.
1211 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
(205) 345-6861 | archibaldbbq.com
Archibald’s is a bare-bones operation in a small cinder block building, but it’s the place to go for classic Alabama-style ribs. The meaty slabs are cooked over hickory and piled atop slices of white bread to mop up the spicy, orange-hued vinegar sauce. Don’t expect much in the way of accompaniments—just chips, sodas and banana pudding—but with ribs this good, you don’t need anything more.
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q
1715 6th Ave. SE
(256) 350-6969 | bigbobgibson.com
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q is the birthplace of Alabama’s now-famous white sauce. It was invented by Big Bob himself almost a century ago when he started cooking pork shoulders and chicken in his backyard. Pitmaster Chris Lilly, who married Big Bob’s great-granddaughter, carries on the family tradition today, and that means pork, ribs, beef brisket and turkey cooked over hickory on old-school brick pits. Most notable are the slow-smoked chicken quarters, which are pulled fresh off the pit and dunked in Big Bob’s legendary sauce.
5535 15th Ave. E.
Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q
1724 9th Ave. N.
Leo and Susie’s Famous Green Top Bar-B-Q
7530 Highway 78
Start in Memphis, then head west along I-40 to Nashville and beyond.
Memphis is one of America’s premier barbecue cities, with a distinctive cooking style and a unique set of side dishes. Plenty of beef and chicken graces local menus, and you owe it to yourself to try a barbecued bologna sandwich—a sinfully smoky treat. But the city is best known for pork and ribs cooked on pits fired with charcoal briquettes instead of wood, which gives a mild but distinctly smoky flavor to the meat.
In Memphis a “barbecue sandwich” means sliced or chopped pork piled on a bun with a generous topping of coleslaw and the city’s signature tangy, reddish-brown sauce. Locals debate whether ribs are best served “wet” (glazed with sauce) or “dry” (enrobed in spice rub), but either way they’re delicious. Slaw and beans are the universal sides, but keep your eye out for barbecue spaghetti, a unique Memphis creation.
1802 Elvis Presley Blvd.
(901) 774-7444 | aandrbbq.com
Andrew and Rose Pollard are the A and the R in A&R Bar-B-Que, and this family-run operation offers the full Memphis repertoire. Pork shoulders, beef and ribs are cooked over charcoal, and the sweet, tangy sauce prickles with spice. You can sample Memphis specialities like barbecue spaghetti and barbecue bologna, a thick slice smoked on the pit then dipped in sauce and served between two slices of white bread. Homemade fried pies round it all out.
Bar-B-Q Shop Restaurant
1782 Madison Ave.
(901) 272-1277 | thebar-b-qshop.com
The barbecue spaghetti at the Bar-B-Q Shop is made from the original recipe created decades ago by Brady Vincent. A base of tomato and barbecue sauce is slow-cooked in the brick pit, then thick, soft spaghetti noodles are tossed in along with big shreds of pork, giving each bite a big smoky burst. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a platter of “half-and-half” ribs—one side wet with sauce, the other dry with spice rub—a judicious compromise between the city’s two competing rib styles.
Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous
52 S. 2nd St.
(901) 523-2746 | hogsfly.com
In the 1940s, Charlie Vergos started cooking ribs hot and fast over charcoal and generously seasoning them with a spice mix based on his father’s Greek chili recipe. Memphis-style dry-rubbed ribs were born. The setting remains a barbecue classic: a cool, dark basement restaurant off a downtown alley, with red-checkered tablecloths and photograph-lined walls. A “Rendezvous Special” platter—ham, cheese, salami and sausage— is the requisite appetizer before you tuck into a big basket of those famous ribs.
2249 Central Ave.
Cozy Corner Restaurant
726 N. Parkway
1762 Lamar Ave.
As you drive east along I-40 through the hills of Western Tennessee, you pass through prime barbecue country, but you have to get off the freeway to find the good stuff. A half-century ago, this region was whole hog territory, but now all but two restaurants—B.E. Scott’s in Lexington and Ramey’s in Parsons—have switched over to cooking shoulders. But plenty of places still burn hickory logs down to coals and use them to fire big cinder block pits. Here, the sandwiches come dressed with slaw by default, and there are two standard sauce options: mild (a thin, sweet-but-tangy brown concoction) and hot (laced with enough red pepper to make your lips tingle).
Helen’s Bar B Q
1016 N. Washington Ave.
The tiny dining room at Helen’s has just two tables, and most customers order their chopped pork sandwiches and ribs to go. From shoveling coals in the cinder block pits out back to shredding cabbage for slaw in the kitchen and chatting up the regulars, Helen Turner runs the show at this west Tennessee gem.
B. E. Scott Barbeque
10880 U.S. 412
Early Scott taught Ricky Parker to cook whole hog, and Ricky Parker taught his son, Zach, who carries on the tradition today. (That lineage is why you’ll often see it called Scott’s-Parker’s Barbeque). It’s a simple, order-at-the-counter place, offering just slaw-topped sandwiches and barbecue by the pound, with chips and canned sodas alongside. The chopped barbecue is exceptionally juicy with a beguilingly rich layer of wood smoke underneath, and the thin, bright orange sauce brims with fiery red pepper—the classic embodiment of the West Tennessee whole hog style.
14 East Holley Street
413 West Jackson St.
500 W. Main St.
Nashville barbecue blends the old with the new thanks to dedicated pitmasters who took the old West Tennessee style to Music City, where they serve it with uptown flair.
Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint
7238 Nolensville Road
(615) 776-1856 | martinsbbqjoint.com
First, Pat Martin managed to make a whole hog pit the centerpiece of an urban restaurant. Now he’s taking that style across the South, with nine locations open in Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama and a tenth on the way in South Carolina. At the original Nolensville Road restaurant, just east of Nashville, you can sample that whole hog piled on a bun with coleslaw or alongside ribs, brisket, and chicken on a combo tray. Or try a “redneck taco”— a glorious concoction of pulled pork piled atop a rich cornmeal hoe-cake with plenty of slaw and sauce.
Peg Leg Porker BBQ
903 Gleaves St.
(615) 829-6023 | peglegporker.com
Since it opened in 2013 in The Gulch district, Peg Leg Porker has grown along with the neighborhood into a bustling dining destination. Owner-pitmaster Carey Bringle’s Memphis-inspired style includes dry rubbed ribs, juicy “yardbird” smoked chicken and crisp, smoky chicken wings. The sides are top notch, too, like a superbly creamy mac and cheese and smoked green beans studded with onion and pork. You can even finish things off with a glass of the restaurant’s own private-label Peg Leg Porker bourbon.
2706 12th Ave. S.
BONUS SEGMENT: East Tennessee
If you want to keep going and drive east from Nashville en route to North Carolina, there are a few spots you can hit these along the way.
900 Elizabethton Highway
Bluff City, TN
It’s takes a bit of a detour off I-40 to get there, but it’s worth the drive to check out the Ridgewood, which has a mountain style all its own. An appetizer of tangy blue cheese dressing with saltines for dipping is a long-time customer favorite. It sets the stage for huge platters of thin-sliced hickory-smoked pork (from hams, not shoulders) mounded high with hand-cut fries and served with sweet, smoky beans in tiny brown pots on the side.
Full Service BBQ
113 S. Washington St.
Full Service’s location at 10248 Kingston Pike in Knoxville is convenient to I-40, but the original location in an old gas station in Maryville is very cool and worth a little drive.
Either drive over the Blue Ridge Mountains from Tennessee or fly into Asheville (note that there are no direct flights between Nashville and Asheville), then make your way east down I-26 to US-75 to I-85, then up I-85 to Lexington and beyond.
The mountains of North Carolina have never been prime barbecue territory, but in recent years a few aspiring pitmasters have set up shops that are well worth a visit as you make your way eastward.
Buxton Hall Barbecue
32 Banks Ave.
(828) 232-7216 | buxtonhall.com
Traditional whole-hog cooking and fine dining technique meet in an impressive setting at Buxton Hall. The 1930s-era building once housed a roller skating club (you can still see the rink’s original maple floorboard in the dining room), and pitmaster Elliot Moss installed his big metal-lidded pits in plain view just behind the kitchen counter. Glowing oak coals give a kiss of smoke to everything from the fried catfish—which is lightly-smoked before its dip in the fryer—to green beans cooked “below the pig” so they catch all the porky drippings. Save room for a slice of pastry chef Ashley Capps’ award-winning pies.
Hubba Hubba Smokehouse
2724 Greenville Highway
Flat Rock, NC
In the Piedmont of North Carolina, barbecue means one thing and one thing only: pork shoulders cooked over hickory coals in enclosed brick pits. Those coals are scattered by the shovelful directly beneath the cooking shoulders, so the fragrant juices drip down onto the coals then evaporate and rise back up through the pit. The region’s sauce has a thin, tangy vinegar base with a touch of ketchup for color and sweetness, and it’s used to dress the “red slaw” or “barbecue slaw” that—along with hush puppies—are the universal sides.
In the Piedmont, you can order your meat chopped, sliced or “coarse chopped,” which means cut into one-inch chunks. Ask for “outside brown” if you want the savory outer bits of the shoulder, which are dense with hickory-smoked flavor.
Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge
2000 E. Dixon Blvd.
(704) 482-8567 | bridgesbbq.com
Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge has a delightfully retro style, with inlaid-wood ceilings and turquoise-backed booths. Order a chopped pork sandwich with plenty of “outside brown” and barbecue slaw on top, and be sure to try a toasted pimento cheese sandwich.
2206 W. Gate City Blvd.
(336) 299-9888 | stameys.com
For three decades, Warner Stamey traveled around the Piedmont opening a series of barbecue restaurants, training several generations of North Carolina pitmasters in the process. His peregrinations ended in Greensboro in 1953, when he opened a restaurant on High Point Road (now Gate City Boulevard). These days, grandson Chip Stamey sticks to the founder’s no-nonsense formula: just hickory-smoked pork served chopped or sliced on plates and sandwiches, fries and baked beans for sides.
100 Smokehouse Lane
(336) 249-9814 | lexbbq.com
With more than a dozen barbecue restaurants serving just 20,000 residents, the town of Lexington might be the most barbecue-dense community in America. Since 1962, the Monk family has been turning out one of the best versions of the town’s signature style. That’s pork shoulder cooked directly over glowing oak coals inside enclosed brick pits and generously dressed with “dip”— a thin, tangy vinegar sauce tinged red with ketchup that’s the perfect complement to the tender, juicy pork.
900 N. Main St.
Smiley’s Lexington BBQ
917 Winston Road
1834 S. Church St.
Hillsborough BBQ Company
236 S. Nash St.
1647 Cole Mill Road
Johnson Family Barbecue
5021 Wake Forest Highway
The Pit Authentic Barbecue
328 W. Davie St.
Eastern North Carolina
Head east on I-40 past Raleigh and you’ll leave behind the pork shoulders and red slaw of the Piedmont and make your way into whole hog country. The style in the east is only slightly removed from the original outdoor form of barbecuing as practiced in the 19th century. Unlike the folks in the Piedmont, Easterners wouldn’t dream of putting ketchup or tomato in barbecue sauce, or in their slaw, either. The sauce is a simple blend of vinegar, salt and spicy red pepper, and it’s used to finish the pork as it is removed from the pit and chopped into fine, smoky shreds. The side dishes are simple, too, like slaw, collards, boiled potatoes and “corn sticks”— cornmeal batter cooked in long finger-like molds.
751 B’s Barbecue Road
B’s is a bare-bones, lunch-only place serving whole hog and smoked chicken on Styrofoam plates. The meat is cooked all night over charcoal on big open metal pits, and five days a week B’s faithful regulars crowd the parking lot and line up for a classic Eastern North Carolina lunch: smoky chopped pork dressed in a spicy vinegar sauce and with slaw, boiled potatoes, and corn sticks on the side.
Skylight Inn BBQ
4618 S. Lee St.
(252) 746-4113 | skylightinnbbq.com
“If it’s not cooked with wood, it’s not BBQ,” declares the billboard out front of the Skylight Inn, and if you have any doubt that they’re cooking barbecue, just check out the gigantic mound of oak logs behind the pit house. It’s a spartan, cash-only counter operation, and the only accompaniments to the chopped pork are coleslaw and a square of cornbread. The most notable feature of Skylight’s ‘cue is that they take the crisp skin from the pigs and chop it right into the meat, adding a delightful little crunch to each tender, smoky bite.
3096 Arrington Bridge Road
Out in the countryside southeast of Goldsboro, in the narrow fork where two roads meet, stands the small white-painted building that houses Grady’s Barbecue. Stephen Grady is now up in his 80s, but he still shovels oak and hickory coals and cooks whole hogs and chickens overnight on open brick pits. His wife, Geri, creates an impressive array of from-scratch sides and desserts—steamed cabbage, collards, black-eyed peas and sweet potato pie.
2514 U.S. 301
Sam Jones BBQ
715 W. Fire Tower Road
Southern Smoke BBQ
29 Warren St.
The Pee Dee Region of South Carolina is named after the river system that encompasses the northeastern portion of the state. Stylistically, its barbecue is an extension of Eastern North Carolina, including whole hog dressed in a pepper-laced vinegar sauce.
Traveler’s tip: When searching for barbecue in the Carolinas, always check the hours and, to be safe, call ahead before you start your drive. Many restaurants are open just a few days a week (Thursday through Saturday being the most common), and a lot of family-run spots are prone to shut down for a week or two when the owners decide they need a vacation.
2734 Hemingway Highway
There’s no barbecue operation on the planet quite like Scott’s, a ramshackle country store just west of Hemingway. The Scott family cooks over all wood, using trees they chop themselves and reduce to glowing coals in gigantic burn barrels behind the pithouse. Those coals are carried a shovelful at a time into the pit room and scattered beneath the whole hogs waiting on cinder block pits. At the finish, the pigs are flipped skin side down and mopped with a fiery vinegar-pepper sauce. Pulled by tongs into long, succulent strands, the pork has a rich smoky flavor that ripples with tongue-tingling spice—a genuine Pee Dee delicacy.
419 Highway 38
As you head toward Columbia, you enter the South Carolina Midlands. Whole hog barbecue can be found in these parts (Hite’s and Sweatman’s are notable examples), but most places cook shoulders or hams. Visitors are often puzzled by the sauce they find here, as it is bright yellow in hue thanks to a sturdy base of mustard. Hash and rice, the region’s signature side dish, can be baffling to newcomers, too. It started out as a way to use up the head and other leftover parts at hog killing time, which were slow simmered with onions and spices in gigantic iron pots until reduced to a thick gravy-like stew. Most restaurants these days make their hash on a stovetop with inexpensive cuts like pork shoulder, but it’s still a rich, savory delight found only in the Midlands.
Big T Bar-B-Q
2520 Congaree Road
(803) 353-0488 | bigtbbq.com
There are two Big T outposts in shopping centers up in Columbia, but the “mothership” out in the countryside near Gadsden is where all the barbecue is cooked. The hash and rice has wonderful dark, earthy notes, and the mustard-dressed pork is tender, smoky and delicious.
240 Dreher Road
West Columbia, SC
(803) 794-4120 | hitesbbq.com
Hite’s is a take-out operation open only on Fridays and Saturdays. Each weekend, they go through two cords of oak and hickory wood in the pit room out back, and you can taste it in every smoke-rich bite of chopped pork and ribs. Be sure to grab a bag of skins if you can—crisp and intensely smoky from hours on the pit, they tend to sell out fast.
In the past five years Charleston has emerged as one of the South’s top barbecue destinations, though the pit-cooking roots don’t run nearly as deep here as in other parts of the Carolinas. The city offers a fusion of styles that have been brought in from all over and adapted to the upscale sensibilities of an internationally recognized fine dining scene.
Rodney Scott Barbecue
1011 King St.
(843) 990-9535 | rodneyscottsbbq.com
Rodney Scott grew up cooking whole hogs at his parents’ restaurant in Hemingway, and in 2016 he headed south to Charleston to open a place of his own. He cooks old-school burn-barrel barbecue in the heart of downtown, firing big metal pits with oak coals, cooking whole hogs for 12 hours, then finishing them with a spicy vinegar-pepper mop. Try the fried catfish and the pit-smoked ribeye sandwich, too—two menu items Scott added just for Charleston.
Home Team BBQ – Downtown
126 Williman St.
(843) 225-7427 | hometeambbq.com
Home Team embodies Charleston’s marriage of traditional wood-cooked barbecue with fine dining technique. Aaron Siegel and Taylor Garrigan traded careers as classically-trained chefs for the smoke of the pits—oak-fired Lang and Oyler pits, to be specific—and the fare takes stylistic cues from all over the South: pulled pork with red Georgia-style sauce, Texas-style salt-and-pepper brisket, smoked chicken with Alabama white sauce. These are joined by an ever-inventive array of daily specials that could range from pit-cooked prime rib to ramen with smoked shrimp.
464 N. Nassau St.
(843) 805-9500 | lewisbarbecue.com
Three years ago, acclaimed brisket master John Lewis, who honed his skills working with Aaron Franklin at Franklin Barbecue in Austin, headed east to set up shop in Charleston. It’s a straight-up Central Texas-style joint, serving prime brisket, ribs, turkey and house-made “hot guts” sausage cooked on gigantic custom-built offset smokers. The meat is sliced fresh to order and served on butcher paper-lined trays, with onions and pickles on the side—an impressive taste of the Lone Star State in the heart of the Holy City.
Flight: Though there are short flights back to Tampa from Charleston, there are currently no direct flights on that route.
If you’re driving back to Florida instead of flying out of Charleston, you can hit these on the way home down I-95—assuming still have a little give left in your eatin’ pants.
B’s Cracklin’ BBQ
12409 White Bluff Road
Southern Soul Barbeque
2020 Demere Road
Saint Simons Island, GA
Jenkins Quality Barbecue
830 N. Pearl St.
Robert F. Moss is a food writer and culinary historian from Charleston, South Carolina. He is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living and the author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, the first full-length history of barbecue in the United States.
Read Dr. BBQ’s thoughts on barbecue (and get some of his own picks) here