After a long summer spent driving down lonely country roads, sampling prodigious quantities of smoked meats and delicious sides, and repeatedly stain-treating shirts, it’s time to release Southern Living’s 2019 list of the Top 50 Barbecue Joints in the South. Last year we took the risky step of listing our picks in ranked order, and we’re doing it again in 2019.
There has been quite a bit of movement within the rankings this year. To the dismay of Carolinians, three slots opened up when a trio of beloved restaurants closed their doors: Cannon's BBQ & More in Little Mountain and Jackie Hite's in Leesville, South Carolina, and Allen & Son’s in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which previously held the #5 slot.
In a pleasant twist, one of those open slots has been filled by a South Carolina joint that had previously fallen off the Top 50 list, since McCabe’s Bar-B-Que in Manning reopened after being closed for a few years due to family illness. A number of new players debuted on the Top 50 list this year, too. (“New”, of course, is a relative term in the Southern barbecue world, where being open a mere half century is nothing to write home about.)
Quite a few of the restaurants on last year’s list have moved up or down in the rankings as we went back and revisited previous years’ picks and compared them with other contenders. The theme noted in 2018’s list continues this year: the barbecue scene in the South just keeps getting better, and restaurants need to stay on top of their game to compete.
The rankings may have changed this year, but the criteria remain the same. The overall dining experience is important: the physical setting, the aroma from the pits, the sauces and dishes served alongside. Whether it’s a bare-bones take-out stand or a full-service restaurant with a wine list and clean restrooms, each place needs a spirit and flair that’s all its own. We try to cast as wide a net as possible, too, seeking out the restaurants that best embody the particular barbecue style of their region.
In the end, though, it all comes down to the quality of the ‘cue. Be it slow-smoked brisket or charcoal-grilled ribs or even house-cured pastrami, nothing else matters if the barbecue isn’t delicious. Those restaurants that moved up in the rankings did so primarily because of flavor—that little extra juiciness or kiss of smoke that makes you say, “wow,” and sends you diving back to the plate for more.
Fortunately for Southern barbecue fans, there are plenty of great “wow” moments out there. Here are our Top 50.
Note: This list should not be confused with Southern Living’s Best in the South, which was released back in April. That selection is voted on by our readers—some 65,000 of them. You can think of that list as the “readers’ choice” and this one as the “editor’s picks.” There is plenty of overlap between the two rankings, though, for as much as Southerners love to argue about barbecue, the cream tends to rise to the top.