Slow-smoked brisket is now in vogue from Seattle to New York City, but to experience the original form of Texas meat-market style barbecue, visit small towns like Luling. It’s worth the drive just for the experience of ordering meat in City Market’s pit room—a dark, cavelike space with walls blackened from decades of thick post oak smoke. The countermen pull brisket, pork ribs, and sausage links from large, metal-lidded brick pits and carve them to order on a big butcher block. They’ve been serving it that way since 1958.
Gregory and Bryan Grayson are the third generation to run this restaurant, which was founded by their grandfather O.O. Grayson in 1959. Many of the staff members have been chopping wood for the pits or whipping up the potato salad and homemade buns for two decades or more. The selection of meat is broad, including beef, ham, pork, and ribs, but the rest of the menu is basic: baked beans, slaw, and potato salad for sides, as well as cookies and pecan pie for dessert. Grayson’s is also famous for its smoked hams, selling upwards of 3,000 of them each holiday season.
The Wootan family carries on the proud Hill Country tradition of cowboy-style open-pit barbecue. Unlike the low-and-slow smoking practiced at the Central Texas markets, Cooper’s cooks at high temperatures over direct heat. Staffers burn mesquite down to coals in giant fireplaces and then shovel it into enclosed metal pits, where the meat cooks about 18 inches directly above the glowing coals at temperatures of 350 degrees or more—sort of a cross between grilling and smoking.
The Florida roadside barbecue tradition has largely been lost to time, but you can still get a taste of it at Shorty’s Bar-B-Q. E.L. “Shorty” Allen opened his first restaurant in 1951 on a stretch of U.S. 1, just south of Miami. After motorists complained that smoke from his pits obscured their vision, Allen was forced to install an anti-emission device in his chimney. In 1972, a spark from the device started a grease fire, and Shorty’s burned down. Allen rebuilt, though, and today diners still sit with strangers at communal tables and dig into plates of chicken and ribs with butter-drenched corn on the cob and pitchers of cold beer.
Johnny Harris got its start during Prohibition when a grocer by that name opened a modest barbecue joint and speakeasy. He did so well that in 1936, he upgraded to an all-brick restaurant on East Victory Drive, the main thoroughfare between Savannah and the beachside resorts. It featured an enormous 12-sided grand ballroom complete with a 30-foot-high domed ceiling painted to resemble the night sky. In 1966, patrons still danced beneath hundreds of twinkling starlike lights to national acts like Louis Prima and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Red Donaldson, Harris’ right-hand man, became the full owner of the business in 1955; his grandchildren and great-grandchildren still run it today. The dance floor has since been filled with tables, and the bandstand is now a service station for the waiters, but you can still sit in one of the 21 handmade cypress booths that ring the room and sample the distinctive style of fried chicken and barbecue that revelers dined on more than a half-century ago, including a rarity in Georgia barbecue: slow-smoked lamb.
In 1918, Charles “Pappy” Foreman, an Owensboro blacksmith, began a side business cooking barbecue for church picnics and other occasions. As the need for blacksmithing dwindled, his barbecue business boomed. Today, Pappy’s great-great-grandson John Foreman is still barbecuing meats on old-fashioned hickory-fire pits, but the restaurant looks very different than it did a half-century ago. “When my dad took over,” John says, “we were in a very small building. We had three booths and two tables and outgrew that pretty fast.” They built their current building in 1986 and, about five years ago, added a dining room with another 65 seats and a brand-new pit house. “But our basic premise is the same,” John says. And by that, he means mutton and lots of it—sliced mutton, chopped mutton, mutton ribs, and mutton loin—along with slow-roasted pork and burgoo, Kentucky’s famous barbecue stew.
Founded in 1912 by Jack Patillo, Patillo’s Bar-B-Q is the oldest family- owned and operated barbecue restaurant in Texas. Though the business has occupied multiple locations over the decades, the core of the menu’s offering has remained the same: flavorful ribs, smoked chicken, and the iconic East Texas “juicy links”—handmade all-beef sausages laced with garlic and chili powder and oozing with bright orange juices.
Around 1941, Jack O’Dell, the “Hash King,” gave up his career as a cattle and hog buyer to open Midway BBQ. At the time, it was just one of many so-called “hash houses” that dotted the Upstate of South Carolina, but now it’s one of the last ones left. Amy Allen, O’Dell’s daughter, and her husband, Jay, run the business today, and the passing years have brought a few changes, like a shiny, red metal roof and, after a pit fire in 2010 that almost wiped them out, a new gas-assist Southern Pride cooker. But there’s still sawdust on the floor beneath the wooden tables, and the barbecue pork is still chopped into long, thin chunks. You can choose from among three homemade sauces, but the overall favorite is Jack O’Dell’s original sauce, a thick, ketchup-based concoction with a nice dose of heat to it.
Mary Seals founded this Jefferson Street landmark on the north side of Nashville in the 1950s, and it’s run today by her granddaughter Katresa Fizer and Fizer’s husband, Clark. A tender pork shoulder sandwich with coleslaw is a house specialty, and it comes loaded up with a blazingly hot barbecue sauce that’s not for the faint of heart (though Mary’s does offer a mild version too). Perhaps the most impressive menu item is the rib sandwich, which features a slab of ribs— bones and all—slathered in that famous hot sauce and piled onto white bread with pickles.
More meat market than restaurant, Hite’s in West Columbia is a take-out, weekend-only operation. Each day, Jerry Hite and his son, David, burn two cords of oak and hickory wood in the pit room behind the main building, and you can taste that wood in every smoky bite of chopped pork and ribs. Load up on the mustard sauce and grab a bag of skins if they have any left (they go fast). They’re crisp and intensely smoky from hours on the pit.
“If it’s been working all these years, ain’t no need to change nothing now,” owner James Harold Jones explained in 2012, when the James Beard Foundation granted his restaurant the America’s Classic award. Though Jones’ father, Hubert, opened the small two-story cinder block restaurant in 1964, the business dates back more than a hundred years to when family members started cooking meat at their homes and selling it from their kitchens. The menu, helmed by pitmaster Theophilus “Spanky” Bannon, couldn’t be simpler: just chopped pork shoulder served by the pound or on a sandwich. For the latter, the meat is piled between two slices of white Wonder bread, topped with Jones’ thin, slightly sweet vinegar sauce and (if you like) coleslaw.
Edna and Joe Hill opened this Winston-Salem, North Carolina, mainstay in 1951, bringing Lexington-style barbecue to Winston-Salem. At first, it was a small operation, selling just barbecue, hot dogs, and fountain sodas in a compact 35-seat dining room. The Hills’ son, Gene, and his wife, Sue, moved the restaurant into its current long brick building in 1971, and its twin dining rooms can now hold 200 customers. The menu also has been expanded considerably, offering steaks, burgers, fried chicken, and ham, plus a full slate of breakfast items in the morning. The main attraction, though, is still the tender, juicy barbecue pork that’s chopped into small shreds and, unlike at most restaurants in the region, served not in a little cardboard boat but on a stainless steel platter.
Founded in 1929, Fresh Air is the quintessential Georgia barbecue joint. As soon as you step inside the spartan dining room you smell the tempting aroma of oak and hickory smoke. It comes from the big L-shaped brick pit in the center of the kitchen, where the Caston family cooks uncured hams all night long, 365 days per year. The compact menu offers finely-chopped pork on a sandwich or by the pound, Brunswick stew, coleslaw, and potato chips. The tangy red sauce is thin and quite spicy, and the stew—fine shreds of beef and corn kernels enrobed in a thick tomato-laced broth—is an iconic version of this classic Georgia dish.
When U.S. 78 was completed through Dora, Alabama, in 1951, the first business to open on it was the Green Top. It was known originally for beer, because Jefferson County at the time was an oasis amid Alabama’s many dry counties. It had a small barbecue pit up front, worked by whoever was tending bar. After Leo and Susie Headrick bought the place in 1973, they gradually put more emphasis on the food side of things, and the Green Top evolved into a family-oriented restaurant. They moved the pit outside and reworked the kitchen, and over the years, the original menu of barbecue and burgers has been expanded to include chicken, barbecue-filled baked potatoes, and barbecue-topped salads, along with sides like French fries and baked beans. Grandson Tony Headrick is the third generation to work the pits, and he still cooks the pork shoulders over real hickory wood and serves them with homemade sauce. And that’s just the way the folks in Dora like it.
When Will and Agnes Couch constructed their small roadside cafe back in 1946, Lee Highway (State 11) was a heavily traveled thoroughfare between Chattanooga and Cleveland, Tennessee. Though I-75 began diverting auto traffic long ago, Couch’s BBQ still draws in customers with its unique brand of East Tennessee barbecue. It is run today by the Couches’ nephew, Kenny Stiner, and his son, Ken, and they still cook the hams over hickory logs on an old-school brick pit. Their signature sandwiches start with pork that is sliced so incredibly thin that it’s almost shaved. After that, the meat is piled onto a warm griddled bun. The delicious bright yellow hot slaw is a closely held family secret (in fact, no one other than the Stiners is even allowed to be in the building when it’s being made), and it’s not difficult to understand why. Finely minced and spicy hot, it’s the perfect topping for those thinly sliced pork sandwiches.
Get both rib tips and snouts on a combo sandwich, piled high on slices of white bread and drenched in a tangy red sauce. Yes, that’s pig snout, sliced thin and cooked crisp like a pork rind. They’ve been serving it at this classic joint since it was founded by Forris King in 1963. Now owned by Daryle Brantley, this takeout-only restaurant has gained a national reputation for its flavorful ribs and pulled pork.
Latham “Bum” Dennis came from a long line of barbecue cooks, so it was only natural that, when he retired from the U.S. Navy in 1966, he decided to open his own restaurant. Bum’s has been a fixture in downtown Ayden ever since. It’s a full-service restaurant offering breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the menu includes everything from pancakes to fried chicken, French toast to Black Angus steaks, and sides like rutabagas and Brunswick stew. But it’s the old-fashioned whole-hog barbecue that gets top billing.
In 1924, a few years after emigrating to the United States from Lebanon, Abraham “Abe” Davis grew tired of peddling clothing around the countryside near Clarksdale, Mississippi, so he decided to try his hand in the restaurant business. He opened a small cafe in town and taught himself to cook barbecue. His son, Pat, took over the business in 1960 and moved it into its current building at the intersections of U.S. 61 and 49, where grandson Pat, Jr., runs the operation today. Abe’s has a unique way of preparing its famous pork sandwiches. Pat and staff cook the Boston butts for six or seven hours and then remove them from the pit and refrigerate them. The next day, they slice the meat from the shoulders as customers order, and warm both the meat and bun on a big griddle. The Big Abe, a double-decker pork sandwich topped with coleslaw, is the restaurant’s signature sandwich, and Abe’s is also known for its tamales—a Mississippi Delta specialty almost as popular as barbecue.
Thomas Jefferson “Bozo” Williams opened the roadside barbecue stand in 1923. Since then, it has changed hands several times, has appeared on the big screen (in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line), and has even been sued by Bozo the Clown. (The restaurant won.) Current owner John Papageorgeon purchased the business in 2008, and he’s kept things pretty much the same. The decor is classic—pale green linoleum floor, red-and-white gingham curtains, brown paneling—as is “The Pig” sandwich with pulled mixed meat (a blend of the tender inner white meat with the smoky outside bits). Piled on a toasted bun with tangy coleslaw, it’s a classic example of West Tennessee barbecue.
“Pappy” Allman opened this Fredericksburg classic in 1954, and it was eventually sold to G.M. “Jim” Haney in 1986. His family still operates it today in the same modest brick building just off the four-lane strip of Jefferson Davis Highway. On the roof, a large, red sign with neon letters and a pig silhouette promises “Pit Cooked Bar-B-Q.” Inside, the decor hasn’t changed much since the days of Pappy Allman: a long dining counter with polished chrome stools and an old menu board that offers the same lineup of barbecue sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, and milk shakes that has been served for decades. The signature item remains the so-called “sliced pork sandwich,” which features what most folks would call fresh pulled pork on a griddled bun with an optional scoop of Allman’s family-recipe coleslaw on the top.