Top-notch Southern barbecue with a whole lot of soul

It’s exactly 12.5 miles from Exit 38 on I-95 to the parking lot of Southern Soul Barbeque on St. Simons Island. If you’re motoring southward down to the sunny skies of Florida, it’s very much worth taking that short detour to see how Harrison Sapp and Griffin Bufkin have transformed an old seaside gas station into a Southern barbecue destination.

Sapp and Bufkin don’t do things by half measures. Out beside the restaurant is a collection of oak-fired Lang and Oyler pits on which they cook pork, ribs, brisket, and more. They serve those treasures in a setting that strikes the pitch-perfect chord for a barbecue joint—one that blends the old with the new, the upscale with the down-to-earth.

St. Simons Island, Georgia

Wynn Myers

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In 2007, after cooking together for various charity events, Bufkin and Sapp launched their barbecue business in a subleased kitchen. Not long after, they moved into a half-century-old converted gas station at the side of a big roundabout just a mile off the beach. Over the next few years, they steadily won over a loyal local following, and as 2010 dawned, the restaurant was poised for their big break. That February, Guy Fieri of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives—a popular cable television show known for its power to propel restaurants from obscurity to overnight success—came to town to film a segment at Southern Soul.

Not a month after the production crews departed—and well before the episode aired—Sapp spied smoke rolling from the side of the building outside. He ran into dining room, which was just starting to fill up with the lunchtime crowd, and shouted for everyone to get out. Within minutes, towering flames were leaping from the roof, and by the time the fire department extinguished the blaze, the roof had collapsed and the old gas station was gutted.

For many businesses that would have been the end, but the St. Simons community rallied around their favorite barbecue spot. Within weeks, Southern Soul was back in business, operating first out of a tent and then from a mobile food trailer. Just after the Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives segment aired in the fall of 2010, Bufkin and Sapp moved back into a completely restored version of their original restaurant. Their business had doubled overnight, and they haven’t looked back since.

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On a typical day at Southern Soul, a buzz of energy bounces around the small dining room, as patrons on barstools chat up the counter crew. Outside under a big, high-sloping awning, diners relax at wooden picnic tables in the warm coastal air, tucking into baskets piled high with sliced turkey, smoked chicken, and tender brisket.

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Southern Soul’s large menu blends traditional Lowcountry Georgia fare like hoppin’ John and tangy Brunswick stew with a few out-of-town guests—burnt ends, brisket chili, and a “Barbecuban” sandwich that loads pork, Swiss, and pickles on a griddled roll. Best of all are the ribs—thick and meaty, the texture perfectly balanced between tender and chewy with a nice sweet char on the outside and a big dose of smoke.

RELATED:  Watch The It List: Southern Living’s The South’s Best, available now on the new People/Entertainment  Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the PEN app on your favorite device.

All that deliciousness is served in a casual, beachy setting with old license plates on the walls and cold craft beers on tap. It’s top-notch Southern barbecue with a whole lot of soul—the perfect recipe to keep the locals and the tourists coming back for more.