Written by Jason Frye
Photos by Keith Isaacs, Mark Petko and Michael Robson

Barbecue. Barbeque. Bar-b-que. BBQ.

No matter how you spell it, we can agree on one thing: with a plate of barbecue in hand, all is right with the world.

We treat barbecue a little differently here in North Carolina. Equal parts art, tradition, religion and celebration, barbecue is something to be taken seriously, made lovingly, laughed over and shared. We eat it in restaurants, at college football tailgates, in backyards and at church picnics, washed down with sweet tea, next to family and friends and strangers. We’ll argue about our favorite styles and the merits of this sauce or that, but in the end it’s barbecue—an essential part of North Carolina’s DNA.

[Note: jump below to scroll through 10 of our favorite local spots for delicious 'cue, or continue reading to whet your appetite!]

3 BBQ restaurants in Raleigh

Pictured, left to right: Big Al's BBQ; Brew N Que; The Pit

But what is North Carolina barbecue?

Here in North Carolina, barbecue comes in two forms: Eastern and Lexington styles.

In Eastern style, we cook the whole hog over wood coals, then pull the meat, maybe give it a little chop, and dress it with sauce made from pepper flakes and vinegar. Typically, Eastern style is served as a sandwich or a plated dish.

Lexington style uses only the shoulders and adds a little sweetness to that vinegar sauce by mixing in tomato paste or brown sugar. It’s chopped and served on a plate. Oak is the wood of choice with Eastern-style barbecue, where Lexington mixes oak and hickory for a more complex smoky flavor.

Clyde Cooper's BBQ

Clyde Cooper's BBQ

Both styles are cooked low and slow and are seasoned simply: salt and pepper, then smoke and time does the rest. Sides are similar, too, with all the things you expect to find with barbecue: slaw, beans, collards or turnip greens, hush puppies, potatoes or potato salad, macaroni and cheese and, of course, banana pudding.

And what about Raleigh?

Even with all the similarities, barbecue fans find themselves in one camp or the other, loving the refinement of Lexington style or the rustic approach of the Eastern whole hog ‘cue. Though each style has a strong regional foothold, Raleigh and Wake County sit in the perfect spot to draw influences from both sides of the barbecue debate. Across the county you’ll find purists who sit by their pits all night, watching coals and flipping that whole hog at the perfect time to make great barbecue. You’ll also find Lexington-lovers sprinkling seasoning over shoulders before loading them into an oak- and hickory-packed smoker.

BBQ

Smokey's BBQ Shack

Because Raleigh sits at a crossroads, is the state capital and sees visitors from every corner of the state and, because it’s a creative city, you see other styles, too. There are pitmasters playing with sides, adding a gourmet touch or sticking close to traditions and family recipes. There are folks adding beer to their sauce or making sauce that’s more Memphis-style than anything east of the Smoky Mountains. Some make brisket, ribs and sausages like they do in Memphis and Texas or reach deeper into the South for their take on Brunswick stew or Hoppin’ John.

But everyone, from pitmasters to food truck operators to backyard barbecue artists to diners, loves what they do, loves what they eat and pursues barbecue with a passion.

Come share that with us. Find a spot at the bar, grab a table for your friends or a couple of pounds to go, but whatever you do, join us for some barbecue.

A Guide to Barbecue in Raleigh, N.C.


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Get to know more of Raleigh and its 11 surrounding towns! Click an area on the map or the links below to explore.

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Downtown Raleigh

Historic neighborhoods, museums, Southern diners and global eats, green spaces, performance venues, breweries and nightlife spots work together to create one incredible, cultural hotspot.

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East Raleigh

Steeped in history, East Raleigh continues to grow with historic neighborhoods, two distilleries, family-fun facilities and restaurants serving up delicious, down-home Southern food.

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Midtown Raleigh

Includes four, different shopping, entertainment and dining areas all within a short drive—North Hills, Crabtree Valley, Cameron Village and the Five Points neighborhood.

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North Raleigh

Home to hundreds of restaurants, large retail stores, entertainment complexes, parks and recreation areas. Family entertainment is easy to find as well as fun, outdoor things to do

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RDU/Brier Creek

Aptly named for its proximity to RDU International Airport, the area is home to hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail, restaurants, breweries and an array of family fun.

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South Raleigh

Located just south of downtown, this area is one of the city’s most rapidly growing. With multiple parks, eateries and entertainment options, it's a great place to spend a day or stay.

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West Raleigh

Boasts two-dozen live performance venues and visual art galleries, including the North Carolina Museum of Art! This hip, college-town drag also includes the N.C. State Fairgrounds and PNC Arena.

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Apex

Celebrating its turn-of-the-century railroad heritage, the charming town of Apex features more than 60 commercial and residential structures dating from 1870 to 1940.

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Cary

One of the fastest-growing cities in the South, the Town of Cary is home to renowned restaurants, world-class shopping, top-tier entertainment, culture and arts and a range of outdoor experiences.

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Fuquay-Varina

Originally, visitors traveled to the quaint town seeking the healing powers of its mineral spring. Today the town remains a rewarding place for day-trip adventures or weekend getaways.

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Garner

Venture just 10 minutes from downtown Raleigh and check out Garner, an All-America City with unique amenities and a genuine, hometown authenticity.

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Holly Springs

At its beginnings, travelers stopped by the area's springs to quench their thirst, and while that bit of history doesn’t continue today, visitors do stop to indulge in breweries and dining spots.

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Perfect for those seeking a welcoming, youthful culture, Knightdale boasts lots of parks and trails for the active-minded, a distillery plus a local-hangout, nano brewery.

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Morrisville/RTP

A growing enclave known for its diversity, educated populace and cultural vibrancy. Includes excellent global dining, plus the local-favorite, indoor climbing spot Triangle Rock Club.

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Rolesville

As the second-oldest town in the Raleigh area, Rolesville’s roots run deep. Established in 1837, the town has held fast to its engaging, Southern charm.

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Wake Forest

A beautiful small town with enough history, culture and activities to keep travelers entertained for days on end. Stroll through the charming, historic downtown district!

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Wendell

Along Main St. and throughout historic downtown Wendell—on the National Register of Historic Places—vintage shops, dining spots and buildings display the architecture of our American heritage.

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Zebulon

Just 25 minutes from downtown Raleigh, Zebulon is a vibrant, welcoming community with activities ranging from sporting events (Carolina Mudcats baseball!) to down-home Southern dining.

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