Carolina BBQ: Two States, So Much Good Barbecue
Skylight Inn remains one of the most iconic classic North Carolina barbecue joints. (Photo by Ryan Cooper)
While the Carolinas are often talked about generally as one of the country’s barbecue regions, it’s easy to forget that it encompasses two entire states. Both North Carolina and South Carolina have their own preferences and when you look even closer, you find regional divisions and rivalries. The Carolinas have a long, rich history in barbecue that stretches back hundreds of years, and that has helped enshrine it in the American landscape.
When people refer to “Carolina BBQ” outside of the Carolinas, they are often referring to vinegar-based sauce applied liberally to smoked whole hog, chopped pork, or pulled pork. This makes sense because if you stop in a classic rural joint in either North or South Carolina, you will order a “BBQ plate” and be served pork. This is because pork is king and other popular types of barbecue (ahem, Texas brisket) are looked at as only recent additions to menus.
But this all gets more complicated as you dig deeper. There are actually three main styles of barbecue you’ll find throughout the Carolinas. Here’s what you’ll find.
Eastern North Carolina Style
One of the Eastern-style whole hog joints worth stopping at is Grady’s Barbecue in Dudley. (Photo by Sean Ludwig)
Eastern North Carolina style is all about whole hog and using every part of the hog to make a meal. Hogs are typically cooked for 16 to 18 hours over hickory and oak wood in concrete pits. Once finished smoking, the whole is chopped up and paired with a vinegar-based sauce that is heavy on pepper and has no added sugar. Some of the most notable joints that have been serving Eastern-style whole hog for generations include B’s Barbecue, Grady’s Barbecue, Parker’s Barbecue, Skylight Inn, and Wilber’s Barbecue.
Piedmont (or Lexington) Style
The delicious chopped pork shoulder and sides at Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro. (Photo by Ryan Cooper)
Gaining popularity in the early 20th Century, North Carolina’s Piedmont style (sometimes called Lexington style) focuses on smoked pork shoulder instead of whole hog. The pork here is also topped with a vinegar-and-tomato-based sauce that is typically sweeter and spicier than the no-frills Eastern-style sauce. You’ll also commonly find hush puppies (deep fried cornmeal) and red slaw (coleslaw mixed with barbecue sauce with no mayo or mustard) on the menu. Some popular options for Piedmont style include Barbecue Center of Lexington, Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, Lexington Barbecue, and Stamey’s Barbecue.
South Carolina (or Midlands) Style
Some South Carolina-style joints like Bessinger’s continue to embrace mustard-based barbecue sauce. (Photo via Bessinger’s Barbecue / Facebook)
Down in South Carolina, things are a little more diverse with parts of the state embracing Eastern-NC style whole hog while others go for a totally different approach. (One small section even goes for pork with ketchup-based sauce.) The popular South Carolina Midlands style emphasizes smoked pork that is cooked over hickory and oak and then topped with a mustard-based sauce. Most of the joints that still serve Midlands style are old-school restaurants, and they include Bessinger’s BBQ, Hite’s Bar-B-Que, Maurice’s Piggie Park, and Sweatman’s Barbeque.
Must-Try Barbecue Joints in North Carolina
Buxton Hall has a wide variety of items on the menu but is best known for whole hog. (Photo by Ryan Cooper)
32 Banks Ave
Asheville, NC 28801
There’s no doubt Buxton Hall is one of the hippest barbecue joints in the Carolinas. But don’t let the “cool” scare you away, and grab a delicious platter with chopped whole hog, hash, slaw, and a buttermilk fried chicken sandwich.
The interior inside Grady’s Bar-B-Q transports you back in time. (Photo by Sean Ludwig)
3096 Arrington Bridge Rd
Dudley, NC 28333
If you didn’t know to stop, Grady’s BBQ would look like an incredibly old-school joint in the middle of nowhere. But you must stop in because Grady’s serves some of the best whole hog in the state and has incredible hospitality to go with it.
Jon G’s Barbecue
116 Glenn Falls St
Peachland, NC 28133
As one of the newest and most-hyped joints in North Carolina, Jon G’s has a reputation. But it earns it with crazy-good brisket, ribs, and house-made sausages.
Lexington Barbecue has been served outstanding pork shoulder for decades. (Photo by Ryan Cooper)
100 Smokehouse Ln
Lexington, NC 27295
Opened in 1962, Lexington Barbecue has attracted legions of fans with its pork shoulders cooked over hickory and oak coals. Grab sides of slaw and hush puppies, then wash it down with a fountain Cheerwine.
Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge
2000 E Dixon Blvd
Shelby, NC 28150
Dating back to the 1950s, Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge is one of the most historic joints that still draws big crowds today. Try the chopped pork BBQ plate, red slaw, and the hush puppies.
4618 Lee St
Ayden, NC 28513
One of the most famous whole joints in America is Skylight Inn, which serves up fantastic chopped whole hog, baked beans, and pineapple cake. Notably, up the road is Sam Jones BBQ, which shares the same DNA as Skylight Inn but offers a more modern, diverse menu.
Essential Barbecue Joints in South Carolina
Bobby’s BBQ in Fountain Inn serves a little bit of everything in barbecue, and it’s all good. (Photo by Bobby’s BBQ / Facebook)
1301 N Main St
Fountain Inn, SC 29644
Bobby’s has attracted a lot of attention for its diverse menu (BBQ jackfruit or tacos anyone?) while still nailing all the classics from multiple regions. Try the brisket, beef ribs, potato casserole, and corn pudding.
240 Wade Hampton Blvd
Greenville, SC 29609
Henry’s is a small old-school joint where you may end up eating a table outside (and that’s part of the fun). Grab a chopped pork or hash sandwich with mustard sauce, sweet potato casserole, banana pudding, and baked beans.
240 Dreher Rd
West Columbia, SC 29169
While Hite’s might be a lesser-known joint among flashier SC ones, it’s one of the few still serving tasty mustard-based sauce on top of tender, wood-smoked pork. Be sure to try the hash and coleslaw as well.
Lewis Barbecue might be a Texas joint in the Carolinas but it’s so good you won’t care where it’s located. (Photo by Ryan Cooper)
464 N Nassau St
Charleston, SC 29403
Pitmaster/owner John Lewis brought some serious Central Texas-style barbecue with him from Austin when he opened up Lewis Barbecue in SC. The menu is much more Texas than Carolina, but it’s so good that you won’t care what state you’re in.
Rodney Scott prepares outstanding whole hog at his Charleston restaurant. (Photo by Sean Ludwig)
Rodney Scott’s BBQ
1011 King St
Charleston, SC 29403
Pitmaster Rodney Scott has taken the barbecue world by storm during the past few years, and you’ll see why at his joint in Charleston. The whole hog, spare ribs, smoked wings, collard greens, and banana pudding may provide a life-changing experience.
2734 Hemingway Hwy #5420
Hemingway, SC 29554
Since 1972, the Scott family has been cooking whole hogs that have attracted acclaim from around the country. Mopped with a spicy vinegar-and-pepper sauce, this whole hog cooked over wood remains a national treasure.
Swig and Swine
Multiple Locations - SC
Swig and Swine provides a modern barbecue experience that blends some Carolina barbecue traditions while adding in great brisket, bourbon, and cocktails.