12 Telltale Signs Of A Great BBQ Restaurant From A Southerner

As the days heat up, so too do the smokers. Nothing signals the start of summer quite like a good old-fashioned barbecue, where aspiring pit masters gather around the grill to give their two cents on how to cook hunks of meat to tender perfection.

While barbecue is an ancient culinary art with dozens of variations worldwide, the cooking method has a distinct flavor and deep roots stateside, especially in the South. American barbecue is typically divided into four primary styles — Texas, Carolina, Kansas City, and Memphis — each with distinct characteristics. Texas barbecue is renowned for its emphasis on beef, with slow-smoked brisket stealing the show. Carolina barbecue features tangy, vinegar-based sauces, with pulled pork as the star. Kansas City style offers a fusion of flavors thanks to a signature sweet and spicy tomato-based sauce. Meanwhile, Memphis is all about pork ribs, slow-cooked and coated in a dry rub.

Regardless of style, the key to quality barbecue is time, a luxury we don't all have during those busy summer months. When the craving calls, a great barbecue restaurant is just the ticket to satisfying the taste of perfectly slow-cooked meats. As an Atlanta native, this writer has eaten at her fair share of good, bad, and greasy barbecue joints in her lifetime. It's an irreplaceable part of Southern living and eating. Based on personal experience and an itch to find the best of the best, we've compiled a list of telltale signs of a great barbecue restaurant to ensure you can get a quality fix anytime the craving strikes.

You can see the smoker

When it comes to great barbecue restaurants, authenticity is key, and that starts with the smoker. Any barbecue spot worth its salt smokes its own meat on site, so the first thing you'll want to look for when casing the joint is the smoker. A quality eatery needs space, and lots of it, to accommodate a smoker capable of churning out close to a hundred pounds (if not more) of meat every single day. Most barbecue joints just aren't big enough to house such a massive piece of equipment indoors, so you'll likely find the smoker proudly displayed outside. Bonus points if there's a huge pile of wood nearby — that's just one more sign that you're on the path to a mouthwatering meal. 

Seeing that behemoth smoker puffing away like a culinary wizard's cauldron isn't just cool, it's a big green flag for quality barbecue. When you see the smoker, you know that the crew isn't messing around with shortcuts. They're putting in the effort to smoke those meats low and slow until they practically melt in your mouth. Next time you're scoping out a new barbecue spot, keep your eyes peeled for the smoker, aka, your ticket to barbecue bliss.

Everything smells smoky

When a barbecue joint is truly smoking its meat in-house, that smoky aroma isn't just a hint — it's an all-encompassing embrace of flavor. The scent should tell a story, with each whiff revealing the type of wood with which the crew has chosen to work their magic. If they opt for cherry wood, you might catch hints of sweetness dancing in the air, while mesquite or hickory will deliver a bolder, more savory punch. But here's the kicker: if that smoke smells anything but natural and enticing, you might want to pump the brakes. Artificial or rancid-smelling smoke? That's a barbecue red flag you won't want to ignore.

Now, let's talk wood. One of the top tips for cooking with a smoker is to know which type of wood works best with each type of food. Top pitmasters know their stuff when it comes to selecting the perfect wood for each meaty masterpiece. Whether it's oak, apple, or pecan, the right wood enhances those savory flavors like nothing else. So, if you spy a smoker churning out wood-smoked goodness instead of relying on plain old charcoal, you'll know that you're in for a barbecue experience worth savoring.

There's a roll of paper towels instead of napkins

Barbecue isn't just a meal — it's an adventure in flavor, and getting a little messy is all part of the fun. Quality barbecue restaurants aren't known for their upscale ambiance, but that super-casual, come-as-you-are atmosphere is what makes smoked meat enthusiasts from all walks of life feel at home. Among the telltale signs of a quality barbecue dining room? Plain wooden tables, worn-in booths, and a whole roll of plain, brown paper towels set right on the table.

When digging into a plate of saucy ribs or juicy brisket, the last thing you want to worry about is cleaning up. Tried-and-true barbecue restaurants keep things simple and efficient by skipping the dainty napkins and providing you with an entire roll of paper towels to wipe up any rogue sauce or escaping juices. If your preferred barbecue spot doesn't offer the paper towel treatment, don't worry. Plenty of quality eateries prefer to go the napkin route, just be sure that they're ultra-thick napkins sitting in a galvanized bucket — it's the next best thing to the classic roll of paper towels. The beauty of barbecue is that it's not about frills. It's about the food and the community it brings together. And nothing brings people together like a mouthwatering (and messy) meal.

Meals are served on metal trays

When it comes to great barbecue, simplicity reigns supreme, and that's evident in the way your food is served. Forget fancy table service — quality barbecue spots keep it real with a straightforward approach. Meats should be sliced to order, ensuring every bite is as fresh and juicy as it can be. And forget plates. The best barbecue restaurants know that butcher paper-lined metal trays are the way to go. Not only does it make cleanup a breeze, but it also gets your meal to you faster because when you're craving barbecue, waiting around for fancy plating just isn't going to cut it. Not to mention, the presentation (if you can call it that) just looks beautifully bountiful. 

Originally a staple of authentic Texas-style barbecue, butcher paper served both form and function as the wrapping for the raw meat and the serving vessel. Obviously, restaurants nowadays use fresh paper to serve their meats, but the aesthetic took off and now you'd be hard-pressed to find a quality barbecue restaurant that serves its meats on a plate.

The meat is served unsauced

One of the cardinal rules of great barbecue is that the sauce should complement, not overpower. If you walk into a barbecue joint and find your meats drowning in sauce, consider it a red flag you won't want to ignore. Pitmasters pour their heart and soul into crafting perfectly smoked meat, and they want you to taste every bit of that effort. Succulent brisket, tender ribs, or juicy pulled pork, kissed by the smoky embrace of a real wood fire — that's the magic of barbecue. So, when those meats hit your tray, they should be pure and naked, ready for you to savor that hard-earned smokiness. It's about letting the meat speak for itself, giving you the chance to decide if you want to add a touch of housemade sauce to the mix.

And speaking of sauce, a true barbecue joint will have a caddy of housemade concoctions right there on the table. The best spots keep it simple, offering no more than a handful of sauces, each showcasing a different flavor profile that complements their signature style of barbecue — bonus points if the sauces are labeled by style (i.e. South Carolina gold, North Carolina vinegar, etc). So go ahead and dip, dunk, and savor the flavors — it's all part of the barbecue experience.

There are multiple platter options on the menu

When a barbecue joint offers tasting platters with options to mix and match multiple types of meat, consider it a thumbs-up. It shows that the crew is confident in their meat game and is eager to have you taste all of their wares without hiding anything behind sauce and a sandwich bun. The tasting platter is also a highly recommended menu item for both barbecue enthusiasts and beginners. You get to experience the pure, unadulterated flavor of each meat without any distractions.

Another telltale sign of a great barbecue restaurant? When they let you buy meat by the quarter pound. Sometimes, you're just craving a taste of brisket or a nibble of ribs and don't want to go overboard. Buying in quarter-pound increments means you can mix and match to your heart's content without ending up in a food coma and still have room for the all-important sides. Next time you're scoping out a barbecue spot, and you see these customizable options on the menu, give 'em a nod of approval for allowing you to craft your perfect barbecue feast, one delicious bite at a time.

Mac and cheese is listed as a vegetable

When you're talking about "vegetables" at a barbecue joint, let's just say that it's a flexible concept. The top-notch spots use the term as a catch-all for their delicious side dishes, and you can bet there's some serious comfort food involved. Among the heavy hitters is usually some form of baked mac and cheese with a gooey, cheesy topping that'll make your taste buds sing with joy.

Just like with its meats, a great barbecue restaurant should make all of its sides from scratch. One of the quickest ways to tell that an eatery is cutting corners is with its mac and cheese. If it looks like Kraft, turn right around and head out the door. While every barbecue restaurant has its own mac and cheese recipe, typical signs of a homemade version are larger noodles, a white or very light yellow sauce, and a crispy, cheesy crust on top.

Of course, mac and cheese isn't the only "vegetable" gracing the menu at a great barbecue restaurant. The very best should have a handful of traditional sides like baked beans, collard greens, and coleslaw. Vegetarians beware: Super traditional spots rarely have more than one or two meat-free side dishes on the menu.

Meat is served with a slice of white bread

Confused by that slice of white bread served alongside your succulent smoked brisket and ribs? Don't be. One of the quickest ways to tell if you're dining at an authentic barbecue joint is to discern whether they serve their meats with a slice of plain white sandwich bread. The simple staple serves as a blank canvas for sopping up all those meaty juices and tangy bits of sauce that slip through your fingers without overpowering any of the subtle smoky notes of high-quality 'que.

As with most Southern culinary traditions, the purpose of the white bread is more practical than palate-pleasing. Quality meats have always been expensive, and early American meat markets weren't always able to provide enough protein to feed the hungry masses. During the 19th century, a solution was devised to pad the plates with cheap extras like pickles and white bread — both of which happen to pair wonderfully with the rich, smoky flavors of beef and pork. Lo and behold, a tasty tradition was born.

They make at least one type of pickle in-house

Pickles and barbecued meats are a match made in culinary heaven. There's just something magical about the tangy crunch of a housemade pickle paired with a rich, savory bite of juicy smoked meat that makes your tastebuds sing.

At great barbecue restaurants, pride runs deep in their scratch-made offerings, and that usually includes a variety of pickles. While dill pickle chips are one of the most common types of pickles served at barbecue restaurants, some high-quality spots take it up a notch, pickling everything from onions to jalapenos, carrots, and even watermelon rinds. It's a sign of quality when a barbecue spot goes beyond the basics, showing off their creativity not just with meats but with every aspect of their menu.

For the full experience, keep an eye out for spots that feature daily specials served with a unique form of housemade pickles. That sweet and acidic kick is the perfect complement to the juicy, smoky flavors of barbecue, elevating your meal to new heights of deliciousness. Next time you're on the hunt for a great barbecue restaurant, don't forget to pay attention to the pickles — it's the little things that raise the bar.

The only alcohol they serve is beer

This is going to bring some controversy. When you stroll into a top-notch barbecue joint, forget about fancy wine pairings or elaborate cocktails — leave that for the trendy haute cuisine spots. Nope, at a real barbecue joint, the focus is squarely on the smoker, where they're tending to every rack of ribs and brisket with the care and attention it deserves.

But don't fret about the lack of fancy drinks. Beer and barbecue are a perfect summertime pairing. At most quality barbecue restaurants, you won't find an extensive drinks menu; instead, you'll likely encounter a small selection of ice-cold bottled and canned beers perfectly suited to wash down those smoky, savory bites.

With the craft beer explosion of the last decade or so, some barbecue joints have upped their beer game. Partnering with local craft brewers, they offer a collection of unique brews, some even on tap. It's a beautiful thing, really — a shared commitment to craftsmanship and quality that elevates both the beer and the barbecue to delicious new heights. So, next time you're craving barbecue, don't forget to grab a cold one to go with it.

They close when the meat runs out

You'll know you've hit the jackpot when you see the magic words, "or until we run out" listed in a barbecue joint's operating hours. It's like a secret handshake, signaling that this place is the real deal when it comes to great barbecue.

While there are few sensations more disappointing than finding your favorite restaurant closed before its posted operating hours, in this case, it's a good thing. "Or until we run out" means that they're not messing around with mass production or cutting corners but rather prioritizing quality over quantity. The crew makes a limited amount of meat each day, and once it's gone, it's gone. That means that they're putting in the time and effort to smoke those meats to juicy perfection, whether it's cooking all day or even overnight.

So, when you see those words, you can bet your bottom dollar that every bite of barbecue you sink your teeth into is going to be top-notch. Because at the end of the day, great barbecue isn't about cranking out as much meat as possible — it's about taking the time to do it right.

They specialize in a specific type of barbecue

Across the vast landscape of American barbecue, the debate rages on over which style reigns supreme. Whether it's Texas brisket, Carolina pulled pork, Kansas City ribs, or Memphis dry rub, every region has its own take on the beloved culinary tradition. So, when your local barbecue spot proudly proclaims allegiance to a specific cooking style, consider it a badge of honor; it shows that they're not just slapping meat on a grill — they're honing their craft with dedication and passion. As a barbecue eater, the fun part is that you get to explore it all. Learning what type of barbecue meets your expectations is part of the journey. However, it's also important the barbecue spot can explain to you what makes their style unique. Is your local Texas barbecue joint smoking six-hour briskets? Chances are, it isn't the real deal. 

There are plenty of quality eateries that claim to specialize in a specific style, but the great barbecue restaurants will likely have awards lining the walls. Competition is fierce, especially within the same style of cooking, so an award-winning spot won't be shy about showing off its accolades. But the simplest way to tell if you're at a great barbecue restaurant? Look for a line out the door.