There are many reasons to travel to North Carolina, from the warm waters and sandy beaches of the Outer Banks to serene mountain views along the Blue Ridge Parkway. But no trip to the Old North State would be complete without some of its legendary barbecue.
In North Carolina, “barbecue” is a noun, applied exclusively to pork. Preferably pulled and occasionally sliced, North Carolina ’cue is usually served with slaw. The best variations are slow cooked over wood, use the whole hog and arrive with a vinegar-based sauce — though plenty of first-rate Carolina barbecue is prepared with pork shoulder and a more tomato-centric sauce.
Although there’s fantastic barbecue found throughout the state, you don’t have to leave the state’s biggest cities for an unforgettable down-home barbecue meal. Instead, loosen your belt at any of these must-visit restaurants for a quintessential North Carolina experience.
The kitschy decorations — including beer ads and road signs — blanketing the walls at Midwood Smokehouse’s downtown location make the shopping center restaurant feel like a cross between a neighborhood dive bar and a roadside diner. But locals rave about the slow-cooked barbecue here, and you’ll find them enjoying it on the patio with friends and washing it down with a domestic beer.
The small chain originally opened in Charlotte’s Plaza-Midwood neighborhood in 2011 before expanding to five locations. Its menu is more diverse than most legitimate barbecue spots, which might be a draw if someone in your party would prefer a smoked salmon salad or a grilled cheese with Gruyere and cheddar. But don’t miss the chopped Carolina pork plate with vinegar sauce, adding a signature smoked sausage link and a side (ranging from creamed corn to bacon-wrapped jalapeños).
While in the area, walk to neighborhood attractions like Lunchbox Records and Legion Brewing, or end the night with rooftop drinks at Peculiar Rabbit or Whiskey Warehouse’s Top Shelf.
INFO 1401 Central Ave., Charlotte; 704-295-4227, midwoodsmokehouse.com
The Pit Authentic Barbecue
The Pit’s Raleigh location (there’s also one in Durham) is designed for versatility. It can easily accommodate vacationing retirees, a bachelor party, a first date or a teenage soccer team, thanks to its partitioned dining areas and U-shaped bar. That’s part of the reason it will likely be packed on a Saturday, even between meals.
The other reason: the Pit’s prime location. Within a block, find the Contemporary Art Museum, Boxcar Bar & Arcade, Crank Arm Brewing and Videri Chocolate Factory. Book the Trolley Pub — a boozy cart propelled by its occupants’ pedaling — and set out from the neighborhood. Just be sure to fill up on the Pit’s fluffy biscuits, vinegar-laden barbecue and hush puppies (deep-fried, cornmeal-based balls often served with barbecue) first.
INFO 328 W. Davie St., Raleigh; 919-890-4500, thepit-raleigh.com
Chances are you’ll drive by Picnic; it stands in a heavily residential neighborhood of the up-and-coming city of Durham. Though the restaurant is new, it’s already among the state’s best whole hog barbecue joints.
A short, wood-paneled divider separates the bar area, which is decorated with a lone string of colorful Christmas lights and a mounted duck midflight. These attributes — plus a long, L-shaped wooden banquette running the length of two walls in the dining area — maintain a down-home vibe common in older barbecue shacks. But the white walls, carefully penned menu board and marquee letters outside spelling the restaurant’s name give Picnic a more updated, modern feel.
Skip trendier specials like bulgogi beef tacos and “nonnative barbecue” such as sliced brisket in favor of Picnic’s pulled pork plate, with its first-rate collards braised with bacon. Order the “Frozen Adult Beverage,” a balanced drink made with amaretto, bourbon and the state’s syrupy soft drink, Cheerwine.
As the Motown hits play, you might find yourself wanting to stay forever. Buy some Pig Whistle barbecue sauce (made in neighboring Chapel Hill) to keep savoring that feeling once you’re home.
INFO 1647 Cole Mill Rd., Durham; 919-908-9128, picnicdurham.com
Allen & Son
Allen & Son is the epitome of vintage North Carolina barbecue — so much so that the restaurant doesn’t have a website. Stepping inside the Chapel Hill location feels like being transported back in time, or, at the very least, echoes a hunting lodge.
Partial wood paneling and checked tablecloths contribute to the picnic-in-the-park feel created by the restaurant’s somewhat more remote location near the Johnston Mill Nature Preserve. Allen & Son is far enough north of the famous UNC campus that it’s in quick striking distance from Durham, too.
Top the rather vinegary barbecue sandwich here with the restaurant’s memorable, peppered white slaw, and order some hush puppies as well. Cash is king here — cards aren’t accepted, which is just more evidence of Allen & Son’s throwback approach.
INFO 6203 Millhouse Rd., Chapel Hill; 919-942-7576
Residents of the City of Arts & Innovation are blessed with several top-notch barbecue restaurants to choose from, but Mr. Barbecue is arguably the best.
Located a short drive from both the “Dinosaur Playground” in Washington Park — an ideal stopover for those traveling with children — and from touristy Old Salem, Mr. Barbecue exudes a classic Southern vibe. No table service here — orders are ready before patrons can spot an open seat.
For more than 50 years, the family-owned restaurant has served affordable, Lexington-style barbecue: a tomato-based sauce on pork shoulder, accompanied by ketchup-and-vinegar-sauced slaw. The pork-skin sandwiches and fried chicken are quite popular, but order the chopped BBQ plate unless dining family-style.
INFO 1381 Peters Creek Pkwy., Winston-Salem; 336-725-7827, mrbarbecue-nc.com
Buxton Hall Barbecue
Bon Appétit named Buxton Hall Barbecue to its list of 10 best new restaurants nationwide in 2016. By then, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the Boston Globe, Time and countless others had already featured Asheville’s whole hog restaurant.
And with good reason. Buxton Hall makes divine barbecue, and pitmaster Elliott Moss is among the more famous chefs in the state. Fortunately, the acclaim doesn’t necessarily mean a line out the door, even with its proximity to several breweries and a doughnut shop in this foodie city.
You can’t go wrong at Buxton Hall, and that goes for the sides as well. Unfortunately, the restaurant stopped offering its Brussels sprouts cooked under the pig, but try a side of green beans prepared the same way or the smoky pimento cheese appetizer and you’ll still leave satisfied.
INFO 32 Banks Ave., Asheville; 828-232-7216, buxtonhall.com