Where to Get the Best Barbecue in the Triangle, When in Raleigh

Step back in time to sample a North Carolina tradition as we lay out the the exact locations and mouth-watering details of the history of Carolina barbecue.

For native North Carolinians, the word “barbecue” stirs strong feelings and emotions. To venture into a barbecue joint is to step back in time, to gather for a meal the way family and friends in North Carolina have for ages in this agrarian state.

For family reunions, weddings or deaths, North Carolinians held "pig pickin's"—roasting whole pigs over coals in pits dug in the ground. With the barbecue, they served up farm-fresh vegetables and homespun desserts, which is why, even today, when you head out to a barbecue joint, you can plan on getting a whole meal, just like your kin cooked for you, with black-eyed peas, Brunswick stew, mac-and-cheese and more.

Family Traditions: Talking to a Local BBQ Expert

Kevin Lloyd, who grew up in Raleigh, says his first memory of eating out was going to a barbecue place with his father.

“I can remember being really small and going downtown to Raleigh [Clyde] Cooper’s Barbecue,” he says. “Cooper’s has been around forever. It opened in 1938, so I can remember being in there with my dad and getting this little paper boat-type thing with barbecue and hush puppies.”

He’s been a barbecue fan ever since, soaking in the unique flavors of food at mom-and-pop restaurants for 45 years.

As a college student, Lloyd returned to Clyde Cooper’s and started taking friends there. Soon, those outings grew into a tradition of hunting for new barbecue places whenever the friends ventured out together.

Within a short drive of the Triangle, there’s wealth of good barbecue joints, he says. Each has a distinctive style, and what is served up on a plate—from sides of vegetables, hush puppies, Brunswick stew and desserts—varies in taste.

Some of his favorite places, besides Clyde Cooper’s, include Carolina Barbeque in Garner, Smokey's BBQ Shack in Morrisville, Stephenson's Bar-B-Q in Willow Springs, and The Pik n Pig in Carthage. Each offers a different dining experience. The Pik n Pig, for example, is next to a small airport.

“You can sit there and watch these little planes come and go and sort of enjoy being outside and relaxed,” Lloyd says. “It’s a really wonderful place to cruise down, have a bite outside and enjoy the day and then cruise back up to Raleigh. You find a lot of car clubs like to go there—Mustang Club, Porsche Club.”

Some places, such as The Firepit in Wake Forest, welcome you even if you only want a bite of something sweet, he says. “It’s one of those places you can just pop in, and if you feel like you don’t want a full meal, you can just get a slice of this Southern-style pecan pie and a glass of whole milk,” he says. “It is just the best thing you can find.”

Barbecue chains are “all right for what they are,” Lloyd says. “They cook it the same way; they season it the same way. It’s consistent, but it doesn’t have that heart and soul that you get from the mom-and-pop place.”

East or West? It's a Matter of What's in the Spread

Most barbecue joints in the Triangle serve “eastern-style” barbecue, which is vinegar-based, but North Carolina is also known for a “western-style” barbecue.

Jim Early, who closed his law office seven years ago to found the N.C. Barbecue Society in Winston-Salem and wrote "The Best Tar Heel Barbecue Book, Manteo to Murphy," which describes the two styles this way:

“East of Chapel Hill, you’ll find places cooking the whole hog … and they use a vinegar-based sauce—mild apple cider vinegar with some water and some sugar, peppers—and it is cooked down,” he says. “It’s got red pepper and black pepper—that’s just for taste. If they want to make it hotter, they can put some habaneros and jack it up a little. ... West of Chapel Hill, they cook pork shoulders," said Early.

"There is no whole hog cooking west of Chapel Hill. They don’t call what they put on their meat ‘sauce’; they call it dip. And they have taken the eastern North Carolina vinegar-based sauce and added tomato—either tomato paste or tomato puree—’most everybody just adds tomato ketchup. They add a sweetener—some molasses, some honey, but ’most everybody uses brown sugar—and it’s kind of a sweet-and-sour concoction.”

When it comes to barbecue, Early says, nobody can top North Carolina’s style of cooking slowly at a low temperature, a method he believes was originally brought here by native Indians who sought ways to cook so that flames and smoke would not alert enemies to their presence.

To honor those still cooking barbecue the old-fashioned way, Early researched and designed the N.C. Historic Barbecue Trail.

“To be on the trail, they have to cook the old-fashioned way—low and slow over live coals—and they have to have done it for 15 or more years,” he says. “They have to cook North Carolina style.”

It’s a style that feels like home—laid back and delicious to many.

“It’s traditional. You can call it comfort food, soul food,” Lloyd says.   

Map: Barbecue Joints Across the Triangle