America’s Favorite Cities for Barbecue 2016
George Washington loved barbecue, but he didn’t always know how to spell it. “Went into Alexandria to a barbecue and stayed all night,” reads a 1769 diary entry from the Founding Father. A year later, he wrote of attending a large “barbicue” and staying until sunset.
Nearly 250 years later, Americans share George Washington’s love for barbecue. The last decade has seen trendy smoke houses open up in nearly every major city in the country, and who among us wouldn’t want to turn the meal into an all-night affair?
But the country also shares his confusion—but not over spelling anymore—of barbecue’s fundamental identity. Across the Barbecue Belt, which spans from Virginia westward to Texas, cities have created distinct definitions of how best to prepare and serve smoked meats. Eastern North Carolina towns douse pork with vinegar; further West, and into Tennessee and Missouri, barbecue fiends add ketchup to the sauce. In much of Texas, tradition mandates no sauce at all.
In this year’s America’s Favorite Places survey, Travel + Leader readers cast their votes on which destinations get barbecue right. Several winners, including Memphis, Tennessee, have a cooking style all their own. Others, like Richmond, Virginia, are cities without any particular barbecue conventions. Instead, local pitmasters there have successfully cherry-picked cooking techniques from every region. What all winning cities have in common, however, is a deep appreciation for slow-cooking and low-fuss eating. George Washington would be proud.
Read on for the full list.
Travel + Leisure’s America’s Favorite Places survey opened on 10/8/2015 and closed on 04/15/2016. It was open to everyone, and ran alongside a sweepstakes. The open-response survey asked respondents to submit their favorite place and rate it in over 65 categories, including affordability, notable restaurants, and public parks. Cities are defined as governed bodies with a population over 100,000.
No. 10: Dallas, Texas
When Dallas does something, it does it big. Big skyscrapers, big museums inside a big arts district, and yes, big barbecue. There are dozens of smokehouses across the city and its outskirts, each with loyal fans professing that theirs is the best. One standout is Lockhart’s, where the motto is “no sauce, no forks.” Diners use white bread and bare hands to enjoy the oak-smoked beef shoulder clod, brisket, and ribs.
No. 9: Detroit, Michigan
Within the last decade or so, Motor City has rapidly embraced brisket, ribs, and pulled meats. The revolution came in 2005, when Slows Bar B-Q first started serving its YardBird sandwich: a poppyseed bun with pulled chicken marinated in mustard. This winter, Woodpile BBQ Shack opened in nearby Clawson, giving visitors a new reason to head out to the suburbs. Steve Coddington mans the pit and lets the meats smoke overnight. Any doubters of Detroit’s love for barbecue should visit during the July’s Pig & Whiskey Festival. What started in 2011 as a half-day fair has ballooned into a three-day bacchanalia with 50,000 attendees.
No. 8: Richmond, Virginia
Virginia’s nickname “Old Dominion” might as well apply to barbecue, which originated there during its early colonial days. In the state capital Richmond, a slew of restaurants are helping to make the old domain over the smoked-meat scene new again, and T+L readers have noticed. Alamo BBQ (an awning-covered joint in the historic Church Hill neighborhood) serves slow-smoked pulled pork and chicken with a tangy sauce. And at Buz and Ned’s, meat marinates for more than 24 hours, making it extra juicy.
No. 7: San Antonio, Texas
Remember the barbecue in San Antonio. Though it’s better known for a downtown riverwalk and the Alamo, this South Texas city has long bubbled under the radar as one of the country’s top barbecue destinations. That holds especially true for those looking for some south-of-the-border influence. At the new King's Hway Q & Brew, in the historic San Pedro Creek neighborhood, pitmaster Emilio Soliz serves tender, oak-smoked briskets with tortillas or in a Mexican-style torta. It might just be San Antonio’s exceptional barbecue that helps residents stay so famously friendly.
No. 6: Raleigh, North Carolina
North Carolina is famous for its two styles of barbecue, which split the state into a ketchup-adding, shoulder-smoking western half and a no-tomato, whole-hog-smoking eastern half. This year, Travel + Leisure readers voiced their preference for compromise, naming centrally located Raleigh—where you can find exemplars of both cooking camps—the state’s best city for barbecue. Head to downtown’s warehouse district for a meal at The Pit, which specializes in eastern-style but also makes a mean western-style sauce. Opened in 2007, it doubles as a popular bourbon bar as well.
No. 5: Knoxville, Tennessee
Americans are finally starting to realize that Knoxville, just 45 minutes north of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, warrants more than a pit-stop. The long-underrated city deserves at the very least a full day, if only to sample its barbecue joints. Like Nashville, Knoxville offers a smorgasbord of smoked-meat techniques. Archer’s is the place to go for Memphis-style pulled pork; Dead End BBQ for Kansas-City-style burnt ends; Sweet P’s for St. Louis ribs; and Full Service (a drive-through, picnic-seating restaurant in a converted gas station) for Texan brisket.
No. 4: Nashville, Tennessee
Music City’s superior barbecue skills may not come as a surprise. In the geographic center of Barbecue Country, Nashville takes a whole-hog approach to its cooking, and combines styles from across the South. At any proper smokehouse in the city, you’ll be able to find the vinegar-based sauces of the Carolinas, mayo-and-vinegar from Alabama (just an hour south), and Memphis’s sweet tomato sauce. Under the sauce is perfectly-smoked meat (usually pork) cooked in an open pit. In southern Nashville, Martin’s Bar-B-Que draws repeat patrons by roasting a fresh hog each day.
No. 3: Fort Worth, Texas
This Texas town, often overshadowed by its larger neighbor, Dallas, takes the crown for Lone Star State’s best barbecue. You won’t find much in the way of sauces here—Texas barbecue is all about tasting the high-quality local meats. Heavy sauces, if there are any, come on the side. Lined with wall-mounted animal trophies, cafeteria-style Angelo’s smokes dry-rubbed meat in a pit over hickory wood. Grab a foam tray and ask for a combo plate with beef brisket and pork ribs. You can also head to the state fair to sample amazing barbecue (and a few outrageous concoctions).
No. 2: Memphis, Tennessee
Blues City loyalists will take heart that their local barbecue has maintained its No. 2 spot. Restaurants here serve “dry” and “wet” ribs, either covered in a paprika-based rub or mopped with a tomato-based sauce while smoking. Both Memphis-style barbecues are a spicier, less-saucy version of the Missouri progeny. Head to popular restaurants like A&R Bar-B-Que for heaping platters of ribs, and consider timing your visit around the annual World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in May.
No. 1: Kansas City, Missouri
For the second year in a row, Kansas City earned top honors for its distinctive barbecue. Beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and mutton come slow-smoked over wood and slathered in a rich tomato-and-molasses sauce. Locals take the fatty edges of pork and beef briskets and smoke them extra-long. The result, a flavorful, slightly charred cut dubbed “burnt ends,” is Kansas City’s gift to the world. If you can’t make it to one of the town’s 100-plus restaurants that serve barbecue—like legendary Arthur Bryant’s or newcomer Berbiglia’s Roost—popular local chain Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue ships its bottled sauces nationwide.