The scions of a some of the South’s most notable barbecue families—like Rodney Scott of Scott’s Barbecue in Hemingway, South Carolina, and Sam Jones of Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina—took bold leaps and opened impressive new restaurants of their own. A lot of eager young pitmasters have entered the game, too. Many come from backgrounds in fine dining or unrelated trades, and they got started in the flourishing food truck and trailer scene before stepping up to permanent brick-and-mortar establishments. These newcomers are serious about their barbecue. They insist on cooking over all wood, using top quality meats, and relentlessly honing their technique.
Whole hog barbecue, a time-worn but laborious, inefficient tradition that once seemed destined for extinction, has made a remarkable comeback, too. All the while, far from the Interstate highways and social media hype, plenty of outstanding old-school joints have kept plugging right along without the benefit of publicists or Instagram accounts or even credit card machines.
And that means that in 2018 it’s harder than ever to compile a list of the 50 best barbecue restaurants in the South. Many admirable places on the 2016 list didn’t make the cut this time around, and through no fault of their own. The competition just keeps getting stiffer.
As in prior years, the criteria for this list remains, first and foremost, the quality of the food itself. Nothing else matters if the barbecue isn’t delicious. But this isn’t some sterile competition where a single bite is judged blindly from a styrofoam box. The overall dining experience carries a lot of weight, too: the physical setting, the aroma from the pits, the sauces and dishes served alongside. As in past years, we’ve tried to cast as wide a net as possible, seeking out the restaurants that best embody the unique barbecue style of their particular region.
Ultimately, any such selection is highly personal and subjective. This time around we decided to take the doubly risky step of presenting the picks in ranked order, and we made this choice for several reasons.
For starters, in past years many readers failed to notice that the top 50 picks were listed in simple alphabetical order, not finding it curious, I suppose, that the best joints in the South just happened to start with “A”. It also increasingly felt like wimping out to say “here are the best 50” and not declare any one place to be better than another.
As it turns out, trying to rank barbecue restaurants is an onerous and perhaps even foolhardy task. How can you compare, for instance, a tray of slow-smoked brisket and juicy sausage from a central Texas-style meat market with the subtle elegance of a chopped pork tray with red slaw in Lexington, North Carolina? I spent hours copying and pasting, shifting one joint down a few spots, then back up again. It’s safe to say that if two restaurants are ranked within four or five spots of each other on this list, they effectively finished in a tie.
Ultimately, I turned to this question to settle the hard choices: if these two restaurants were located right next door to each other, at which would you choose to eat? The correct answer to that question, of course, is “both,” so I next asked, which one would you eat at first? The answer to that determined the sorting.
Note: This list should not be confused with Southern Living’s Best in the South, which last appeared in March. That selection is voted on by our readers, and it will be coming out again March 2019. You can think of that list as the “readers’ choice” and this one as the “editor’s picks.” Of course, there’s plenty of overlap between the two rankings, for as much as Southerners love to argue about barbecue, the cream tends to rise to the top.