An eastern North Carolina native dishes on the no-frills but brilliant eastern NC barbecue restaurants that you have to visit.
There are two kinds of barbecue in North Carolina and for the purpose of this article, we’re going to pretend one doesn’t exist.
Sorry, western NC barbecue. You’ll get your moment. In fact, NC’s Lexington BBQ Fest, held every fall in Davidson County, is your moment.
In this article we’re going to talk about eastern NC barbecue. That’s the vinegary, smokey, peppery, whole-hog kind.
The whole hog cooking started in NC because, naturally, thrifty rural folks didn’t see any reason to waste parts of the pig. Other regions might stick to the shoulder or the ribs. Eastern NC pitmasters, however, cook the whole thing—usually in a wood-fired pit—and chop it up into a delicious, never-too-pristine mix.
Such is the duality of barbecue. It’s intentionally humble in the production, and ambitious in its finished product. We want to cook meat in a hole in the ground and we want it to be the best thing you’ve ever eaten in your whole stupid life.
Spoiler alert: The sauce is usually what separates the chumps from the champs. But the cooking can do it, too. We’ll try to acknowledge both parts.
[Editor’s note: You can find good barbecue all over, but if you’re looking for the finest—the honest-to-goodness finest—barbecue in North Carolina, you need to get yourself to rural, out-of-the-way places.]
[Second Editor’s Note: Black-owned barbecue restaurants are perennially under-represented by the food critics. So ditch some of the glossy magazine guides published by, like, an ad executive in New York because they can lead you astray.]
[Third Editor’s Note: There are few areas where you’re more rewarded for picking the rundown hole-in-the-wall than in barbecue. Sure, there are good, slick barbecue restaurants, but if you’re worried about the structural integrity of a barbecue restaurant you see, there’s a chance they are making something amazing in there.]
[One More Thing: If we’ve missed a place that you love, tell us—the bigger this list is, the better.]
Here’s our guide to the 5 best eastern NC barbecue joints, according to us:
Skylight Inn – Ayden
What makes the Skylight Inn special, in our humble opinion, isn’t just the sauce (although the Jones Family’s sauce is a vinegar marvel). They sear the outside flesh of the hog as well and chop it into the mix.
In other words, there’s a crispy, cracklin’ taste to their barbecue. If it’s not your thing, it’s not your thing. But it’s our thing, so they win big.
If there was ever trial and error to their barbecue, they’ve worked out the kinks by now. Skylight has been a thing since 1947.
They also serve a thick, phone book slab of cornbread with their ‘cue, not the cakey, sweet stuff. You could wield this cornbread like a club— but we prefer to eat it.
Find Them: 4618 Lee St., Ayden, N.C.
Backyard BBQ Pit – Durham
Backyard BBQ bills itself as “no-frills” but we consider food this good to be the best possible frill. This Durham institution, like many, has struggled to survive the cost of inflation in recent years.
That’s one good reason to give co-owner Fabianne Simmons and her team your money. Another reason is the food is friggin’ delicious. Their menu has all the basics—barbecue, brisket, ribs, seafood, and the sides—at, still, a remarkably affordable price.
Find Them: 5122 NC Highway 55, Durham, N.C.
Grady’s BBQ – Dudley
Partners Steve and Gerri Grady make barbecue in a brick pit and it tastes like a million bucks.
Remember what we said about the duality of barbecue masters like Grady’s? There’s nothing fancy about their menu, their building, or their style. It’s made by outwardly humble Southerners who think of cooking it like a calling.
Most pitmasters want their barbecue to be talked about like it’s the food of royalty, even if they smell like they’ve been hanging out in a smoky old dungeon all day. Grady’s Barbecue in Dudley has earned that royal title. The menu is simple and effective, delicious all around. And like most good BBQ joints, there’s a solid banana pudding in the dessert case.
Find Them: 3096 Arrington Bridge Rd, Dudley, NC
Wilber’s – Goldsboro
There’s not much left to say about Wilber’s that hasn’t already been said. This Goldsboro barbecue haven, which opened in 1962, is decorated and respected. The meat’s cooked overnight over oak and it tastes like it. That smokey, vinegar taste can’t be faked.
The world’s gotten more expensive. But at Wilber’s, you can still buy a barbecue sandwich with coleslaw on it for $7.03 to be exact. Put fried okra on there and you’re set. On Fridays, they fry flounder and cook up pork chops for you, too.
Find Them: 4172 U.S. 70, Goldsboro, N.C.
Southern Smoke BBQ – Garland
Because good barbecue usually has an eccentric story, too.
The restaurant’s only open Thursdays and Fridays, which tells you they take their time making the barbecue rather than churning it out like a fast-food restaurant. Which is the point. Great barbecue is cooked, famously, low and slow.
The time and care shows. Their pork is immaculate.
Find Them: 29 E. Warren St., Garland, N.C.