Barbecue is an essential part of North Carolina’s history and heritage. There’s a fervent debate over which style of barbecue – Lexington vs Eastern – is the best and most representative of the state. Choose for yourself when you take the North Carolina Historic Barbecue Trail; a 20-stop route designed by the North Carolina Barbecue Society that maps some of the state’s great pit barbecue joints. We’ve gone through the itinerary and picked out the best of the bunch.*
B’s Barbecue, Greenville
B's Barbecue specialises in Eastern-style barbecue
Starting in the east, B’s Barbecue has been serving hungry crowds since the late 1970’s. Its location means it specialises in Eastern-style barbecue; a ‘whole hog’ approach that often uses all parts of the pig, while the sauces are vinegar and pepper-based with a distinct lack of tomatoes or ketchup – lending the meat an alternative and sharper flavour. B’s Barbecue in the city of Greenville does exceptional pit-smoked pork but it’s the chicken that’s the winner here, which might be one of the reasons there’s usually a queue that runs outside of the door. Come early because once they sell out, they close up shop for the day. Stay close at Residence Inn.
Grady’s Barbecue, Dudley
The hush puppies are notably good here
Grady’s Barbecue has all the hallmarks of a classic barbecue joint; named after and run by the same family, with nostalgic decor and a cavernous barbecue pit out back. Grady’s Barbecue is one of the few Eastern-style joints that split its own hickory and oak logs to fuel the barbecue and there’s good reason as to why they still do; when cooked this way, meat develops a richness and undeniable smokiness. And there’s an intense amount of dedication put into the culinary process here – the owner stokes the fire at 11pm and rises again at 4am. Try the homemade tea, coleslaw and hush puppies (oblong-shaped, deep-fried pieces of cornbread) which are all excellent, too. Spend the night at the Sleep Inn & Suites Mount Olive, just 15 minutes’ drive away.
Stamey’s Barbecue, Greensboro
The barbecue here has a reddish hue typical of Lexington-style barbecue
Passing through the city of Greensboro, you’ll start to notice a shift towards Lexington-style barbecue and Stamey’s is the spot in town to try it. This style of barbecue has a distinct reddish hue courtesy of the tomato paste and ketchup used in this part of the state. So expect ‘red slaw’ – barbecue sauce-infused coleslaw – alongside sweet and spicy red dipping sauces. Another difference is the cut of the pork they use – Lexington-style often relies on the pork shoulder rather than the entire pig. Order a sizeable plate of chopped pork with all the trimmings (you can’t go wrong with crisp coleslaw and hush puppies) and dip it into the sauce for a peppery finish. There are two branches of this fine barbecue eatery but you may as well visit the original on West Gate City Boulevard, just a short drive from the Hampton Inn.
Real Q, Winston-Salem
Pit-smoked pork comes with helpings of coleslaw, fries and hush puppies
Formerly known as Little Richard’s, Real Q is the real deal when it comes to barbecue. The slogan here is ‘if it ain’t over wood, it ain’t as good’, and the proof is in the pit-smoked meat they dish up on a daily basis. A smoked tower of pit-roasted pork saddled with a mound of coleslaw, fries and golden hush puppies is the default order for most of the joint’s patrons. And the food’s popularity has led to Real Q opening a second location. But don’t just stay for the meat – the chocolate cream pie is a stacked slice of creamy indulgence. Sleep it all off at Home2Suites.
Barbecue Centre of Lexington, Lexington
Lexington is the home of Lexington-style barbecue and an essential stop for meat lovers
Lexington is the home of The Barbecue Festival, North Carolina’s largest one-day festival and the official event (of this kind) in the state, so you’d expect the meat to be good here. Head to informal eatery, the Barbecue Center of Lexington, where the stacks of wood piled up outside feed the barbecue fire pit. Enter the restaurant, find yourself an empty booth and order yourself a plate of wonderfully browned pork (but note that you can customise your order to either light or dark meat here). Eat up and then recover from the heftily-sized meal at this hotel just up the road.
BBQ King, Lincolnton
No meal here is complete without trying the fiery red jalapeno sauce to accompany the meat
For both a winning atmosphere and great food, Lincolnton’s BBQ King’s inclusion on the trail makes perfect sense. Warm wood-panelled walls and ceilings with gingham-style curtains make eating here a delightfully old-fashioned occasion. As for the food, the pit-smoked pork is tender and nutty, while the coleslaw is delicate thanks to the celery seed used. And no meal is complete without a sauce – choose from the classic red or the fiery jalapeno sauce, though the latter is best used sparingly as it packs quite a punch. Base yourself close by and spend the night at this hotel.
Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, Shelby
There's a legacy of supreme barbecue craft at Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge
The penultimate stop on the trail (if, like most, you’re starting in the east), Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge proves that sometimes the best is saved for (almost) last. The previous owner here was taught by Warner Stamey of Stamey’s Barbecue, meaning there’s a legacy of supreme barbecue craft that lives on. Expect the pork to be woody and deep brown on the outside, the way barbecue experts so crave. And the sauce, well, it’s the crowning glory – amber-coloured, and simultaneously tart and a little sweet. Dig in until you’ve eaten your fill for the day – Country Inn & Suites is nearby.
**This was originally a 22-stop route but Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro and Allen & Son Bar-B-Que are now closed.