The Ten Best Eastern North Carolina Barbecue Places

Before I give you the list a little background is in order. The demise of Rick’s and Smileys, two grand North Carolina Piedmont barbecue places, has weighed on my spirit. Then a new horror arose, and prompted me to doff my sackcloth and ashes, and write this post. I will get to the list, I promise, but bear with me for a few paragraphs.

I used to wax wroth at “Best Barbecue” lists, but gave it up as a mug’s game. They’re usually just ill-informed cut and pastes from other best barbecue lists, and unworthy of any attention. The only ones I’ve found worth reading are the quadrennial (or is it quinquennial?) Texas Monthly “50 Best” list, Robert Moss’s various lists (as distinguished from the Southern Living Readers’ Picks Lists), and the Barbecue Bros for the areas they cover– and even Dr. Moss, scholar and gentleman that he is, blithely mixes brisket, pork, and rib places, as if those foods are interchangeable.

But now, I have become aware of a truly offensive list, the Tripadvisor ratings of the Best Barbecue Joints in Eastern North Carolina. Now, Tripadvisor’s list is like the reader-voted ratings from which Robert Moss is at great pains to distance himself. Tripadvisor doesn’t care what aspect of the meal you liked or disliked. Some persons of the male persuasion claim to go to Hooters for “their great wings.” In truth the wings are pedestrian at best. (I went once. Just to be polite. Really.) High ratings often have little if anything at all to do with the barbecue itself, especially true at vacation spots, where views (broadly defined) and drinks are among myriad distractions from the food.

The food, however, is at the center of traditional Eastern North Carolina barbecue. Of views there are none, and alcohol is rarely available. The food is without ornament, without guile, and is itself the sole attraction. And it is accessible for rich and poor alike. Eastern North Carolina barbecue is a national, in fact a world treasure (as is Western North Carolina barbecue), a uniquely American food, and a joy to eat. It’s much better than couscous, kimchi, and other foods on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List (that I like), and the many Eastern North Carolina shops deserve designation as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

It’s one thing to put out a plagiarized list or a just plain stupid Best List It’s quite another to list sub-standard places in the heart of one of the world’s top culinary locations.

The top-rated place per the offending Tripadvisor list is Mission Barbecue in Jacksonville. More about Mission later. Numbers, 2, 5, 8, 10, and 11 are in the Outer Banks, of all places, an area that mainly attracts … visitors from parts of the US that are not steeped in barbecue. The list does include a few of the true best barbecue places in Eastern North Carolina, but they’re tucked in among places known for chili mac and cheese and sauces heavy with molasses, places whose meat is cooked with gas by “set and forget” smokers, rather than by skilled craftsmen and women over wood coals. O tempora! O mores!

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, where joints accumulate and tastes decay. This degradation of taste attends the explosion of the sort of barbecue places that John Shelton Reed has dubbed the International House of Barbecue, places untied to place, untethered by tradition, and often uninterested in quality.

Back to Mission. I’ve eaten at the Mission Barbecue near Dover Air Force Base. (“Mission” refers to military missions.) See my review here. The Jacksonville location, outside Camp Lejeune, serves Marines and visiting relatives from all over the United States,.

I am second to few in respect for our armed forces, and honoring the men and women who serve is at the core and on the sleeve of Mission BBQ. And think — if you’re visiting a loved one who has committed to the Marine Corps with all the attendant dangers and sacrifices, what could be more fitting for a meal, more emotionally satisfying, than a place pervaded with respect for the military and love of country? There’s more to life than food. Really. So I’ll give the many people who rated Mission well above its strictly barbecue value a pass, and I wish them well. The beach people however … really ought to know better.

In the interest of education and as a public service to the barbecue-ally challenged, here are the actual 10 Best Barbecue Places in Eastern North Carolina. I define Eastern North Carolina as the area east of or less than 10 miles, give or take, west of I-95. That’s roughly the area below the Gnat Line. I present the places in alphabetical order: I refuse to choose among my children, but welcome your thoughts on which is best — and any you find lacking. Each serves barbecue within the Eastern North Carolina tradition of pork with a vinegar-pepper sauce cooked over wood coals, and each serves delicious food. To understand why I love each of them, read the details of each by clicking the link.

B’s Barbecue in Greenville

Bum’s Restaurant in Ayden

Grady’s BBQ near Dudley, more or less

Sam Jones BBQ in Winterville

The Skylight Inn in Ayden

Southern Smoke BBQ in Garland

Stephenson’s Bar-B-Q in Willow Grove

Wilber’s BBQ in Goldsboro

Well, that’s eight. I’m keeping slots open as there are a few places I haven’t tried yet and probably won’t get to until summer, including Shepard’s in Emerald Isle, Sid’s Catering in Beulaville, and a few places down near Wilmington.

Okay, which did I forget? What are other places I need to try? Before you get angry, I hasten to add that there are other great places to eat that have tasty but not quite the best barbecue on the menu. I love Parker’s Barbecue in Wilson for the Old School atmosphere, but mainly for their corn sticks, fried chicken, and excellent sauce; and Morris Barbecue in Hookerton for their sauce and their Even Older School setting. And I’m not even counting invitation-only events, like the Annual Beer Snob Pig Picking.

Those who are familiar with North Carolina geography or who have already started mapping a trip, will note that four of the eight places are in Pitt County. You should remember that, especially if you’re thinking about college. Why not go to East Carolina in Greenville, cheek by jowl with Winterville and a few short miles from noble Ayden? And everyone should remember those four oases when planning a vacation or their route to the beach. Pitt County is well worth a detour or a weekend trip.

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15 thoughts on “The Ten Best Eastern North Carolina Barbecue Places

  1. Tanner, you are killing me. I am trying to get work done, a new business off the ground, and contend with a plague.

    And now you send me THIS! Alla those places are within a kinda, sorta workable radius of each other, so noooowwww, I have to set up a multi-day road trip to get there. How am I sposed to get any work done?

    The least you could do to compensate me for the pain and suffering you are causing me, is to gift us with a Western Division Top 10 or 9 or even 3, so that I an coincide my BBQ lusts with my granddaughter’s Asheville high school graduation next month.

    Well done, btw. I like your even handedness.

    Harry Gilliam

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That will come in good time, but for now, here’s something just for you, Harry. Take 95 to 40 and stop at Stamey’s in Greensboro or else Clark’s in Kernersville for lunch. I think I’d stop at both Then push on to Asheville and have dinner at Buxton Hall, and let me know what you think of it.

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  2. What a great review, bravo for your support and spot on understanding of whole hog BBQ, this article makes me stand loud and proud of my heritage.

    Go Pirates
    Chris A Sumrell

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well said, Mr. Tanner. Thanks for identifying the FEW remaining excellent barbecue establishments. Bum’s, in particular, is highly underrated and often overshadowed by the bigger names in Pitt County. But what a fantastic old-school, southern eating experience the Dennis family provides! If only we could get the masses to understand the true differences in traditional wood cooked barbecue vs the trendy, sauce and cheese covered on-demand junk. In my travels across the east, I have 2 suggestions for you to try that should take your remaining slots….1 you mentioned, Shepherd’s, and the other is Old Colony Smokehouse in Edenton. Both spots have been excellent on more than one occasion and by all appearances their young owners are committed to preserving tradition while mixing in some not-so-traditional items to appeal to the non-locals as both are in locations with heavy tourist traffic. Again, thanks for this refreshing article. Well wishes, sir.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words. I’m a huge fan of Bum’s, for the barbecue and for so much else — the collards, corn sticks, ‘nana pudding, and the people. And I appreciate your suggestions — and throw in some for other types of food. I’ll be going down to the beach down near Morehead this summer and will definitely try Shepherd’s (and the Captain’s Kitchen, of course), and Edenton is only a few hours out of my way. I’ll be there.
      By the way.. have you been to Captain Bob’s in Hertford or Martelle’s in Englehard?

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      1. I stop in to Captain Bob’s a couple times a year. I think they have some of the best fried chicken anywhere. Unfortunately, the bbq and vegetables aren’t what they used to be. Have not been to Martelle’s in several years as I don’t get out that way much anymore. But when I did, it was always an excellent experience – country cooking at it’s finest.

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  4. Hi John. I’m making a short trip towards the coast (Johnson City to Pinehurst to Va Beach) and would like to hit at least one place for eastern style and some ribs. Any recommendations (or two)?

    Many thanks.

    Larry

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Larry, Ribs are tough. I rarely eat ribs in North Carolina. Here’s what I would do. Stop for lunch at Clark’s in Kernersville, just off 40, or Stamey’s in Greensboro, on the way to Pinehurst. From Pinehurst route through Greenville and Ayden to go to Bum’s and/or the Skylight Inn. Or spend the night and go to B’s and Sam Jones, too. Sam Jones has ribs. While you’re in Virginia Beach try Redwood Smoke Shack and Dave’s. On your way back, take the interstates and just outside Richmond, go to the Original Ronnie’s. You might also try the brisket at ZZQ in Richmond. And Ace Biscuit and Barbecue in Charlottesville.
      I hope this helps. Have a great trip!
      John

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