The 16 Best BBQ Joints in Memphis, According to Local Experts
From burnt ends to brisket and beyond, these are your best bets for smoked meat in Memphis.
Family. Tradition. Soul. This is what sets Memphis barbecue apart. Ronald Payne, of Payne’s Bar-B-Q, says that most of the barbecue restaurants in Memphis are family-owned, and that the barbecue here just has a certain “soulfulness” to it. The restaurant he runs today was started by his father, and their signature mustard slaw—which they make fresh every day—has been in his dad’s family for four or five generations. “My dad’s family was a big barbecue family,” he says, joking that his mom “never planned on being in Payne’s every day like she was.”
Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, another family-owned, iconic barbeque restaurant in Memphis, is one of the only other establishments touting a mustard slaw. “Our mustard-vinegar based coleslaw is a 100 year old family recipe,” says his granddaughter, Anna Vergos-Blair. “Charlie's father had a hot dog stand on Beale Street around 1910. He put this coleslaw on top of the hot dogs. It is the same recipe we use today (and is still really good on hot dogs).”
Personally, Ronald prefers a mayonnaise slaw, but says that their mustard slaw pairs better with their tangy sauce. “The combination just works,” he says.
Anna asked her dad, John Vergos, why Memphians put slaw on their barbecue and he said, “It is the perfect combination of flavors, textures, and temperatures.” The first place John recalls putting slaw on a barbecue sandwich was at Leonard's, which dates back to 1922.
Ronald doesn’t eat much barbecue, aside from a bologna sandwich now and then, but he still loves a backyard barbecue because of the personal touches and different tastes. It’s these traditions that keep the barbecue scene in Memphis alive—and keeps it as one of the best in the country. “People are trying different things. Eventually, some way, somebody might even make it healthier,” he says, laughing. “There might be a lot of tofu barbecue going around.”
Until then, use this list to sample the big dogs (hogs?) in town: the long standing, off-the-beaten-path spots and the locals’ favorites—all are essential restaurants in Memphis.
Ernie Mellor founded A Moveable Feast catering company in 1997 and did quite well for over 20 years. The pandemic shifted his business to home delivery, and now a brick-and-mortar store where customers can order prepared meals, smoked meats by the pound, and freshly made sandwiches and salads to go along with a selection of specialty grocery items. A past Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest winner, Mellor is credited with first serving barbecue nachos in the ‘70s when he ran concessions at the old Tim McCarver Stadium.
Bryant Bain’s Texas-style barbecue started off in a food truck on Broad Avenue, and has been given a second life along with a bakery in Cooper Young, thanks to a partnership with Ryan Glosson. Now in addition to Texas craft-style brisket, customers can enjoy Bain’s sweet and savory breakfast pastries like cinnamon rolls or sausage gravy-stuffed kolaches.
Andrew & Rose Pollard founded A&R Bar-B-Q in 1983 as a fast food take-out restaurant. The original menu featured only barbecue and hamburgers. Now with two locations, you’ll find pork, turkey, chicken, bologna, Polish sausages, hot links, hot dogs, catfish, and more. The meat is cooked in a detached smokehouse behind the restaurant, and in addition to the pork shoulder and the homemade hot link sausages, the rib tip sandwich is a must try.
Owner and pitmaster Merritt Bailey opened Ballhoggerz in the heart of Orange Mound in 2018. He has the trophies to back up his barbecue braggadocio. Ballhoggerz makes their own seasoning and sauce in-house, and the meats are smoked on-site throughout the day. Try the ribs and the chicken wings. If you’re looking for a side, look no further than the baked beans.
The Bar-B-Q Shop
In Memphis, traditional spaghetti is a common side dish at soul food and barbecue restaurants. At Eric Vernon’s Bar-B-Q Shop (originally known as Brady and Lil’s), however, there's full-on barbecue spaghetti combining pulled pork that is smoked for 12 hours, smoke-infused barbecue sauce, and soft, slurpable noodles. Their Pulled Pork Sandwich on Texas Toast and Glazed Dry Ribs are other must eats.
Central BBQ, now with four local restaurants and two Nashville outposts, frequently tops local polls for best barbecue. Known for the slow-smoked Memphis style ribs, owner Craig Blondis says it’s the Barbecue Nachos that top the sales charts. Made with tortilla chips or housemade barbecue chips, two kinds of cheese, sauce, and your choice of pulled pork, smoked chicken, or a smoked portabella mushroom, they are hard to beat. Another bonus is the self-serve sauces: mild, hot, vinegar, and mustard.
Coletta's Italian Restaurant
Coletta’s is Memphis’ oldest restaurant. Primarily an Italian restaurant, the fact that they wooed the local population to embrace pizza in the '50s by topping it with barbecued shoulder meat has landed them on more than one best barbecue list. Elvis loved barbecue pizza, which didn’t hurt business one bit. The back room he always requested at the original South Parkway location is still designated the Elvis Room and decorated with his memorabilia. Visit the other location in Cordova.
Corky’s BBQ certainally has a local following and has expanded its reach into Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas over the last 30 plus years. Their sauce is in every local grocery and their food can be shipped anywhere in the country. Because of its commercial success, Corky’s isn’t the “coolest” place to say is your favorite—but it’d be foolish to leave Don Pelts’s life’s work off of any BBQ list. Meats are slow-cooked over hickory and charcoal, each slab of ribs is trimmed to strict specifications, and every pork shoulder is hand-pulled.
A favorite of many locals, Cozy Corner is one of the most iconic shops in town and has been run by four generations of Robinsons since 1977. It’s known for the barbecued Cornish hens, and rightly so, but you should make sure to try the ribs, too. Whatever you’re getting, though, plan to get messy. Raymond Robinson built his legacy with a Chicago-style smoker where meat is placed on the lowest rack, then moved progressively upward until it’s smoked to perfection. His wife, Desiree, became the part-time pitmaster after his passing and was the first African-American woman to be inducted into the The American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame in June 2020.
The original Commissary in Germantown was a small country store for over 90 years, until Walker Taylor bought it in 1981 and turned it into a barbecue restaurant. Their claim to fame is the creation of barbecue nachos in 1982—though this distinctive combination of pork, cheese, and barbecue sauce on a bed of tortilla chips didn’t really gain traction until the late ‘90s when Redbirds baseball fans got their hands on them. Now Barbecue Nachos are considered a standard offering at restaurants all over the city. There’s also a second location in Collierville.
The Neely family is legendary in Memphis, and James Neely put them on the map when he opened the original Intertstate Barbecue on South Third in 1979. He has a specially built barbecue pit to keep meat fall-off-the-bone moist. His secret sauce is so delicious they can’t keep bottles of it on the table, lest they disappear. A large chopped sandwich with extra sauce is about as close to heaven as some of us may come. Look out for the second location on Winchester Road and a third in Southaven.
Leonard Heuberger opened Leonard's Lunch in 1922, and it was later purchased in 2021 by Wendy McCrory, of the Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken franchise, making Leonard's the oldest surviving name in Memphis barbecue. Its popularity can be traced to the daily barbecue lunch buffet. If you’ve ever wondered how Memphians came to put cole slaw on their sandwiches, well, the tradition began at Leonard’s. Elvis was a regular and is said to have thrown all night parties at the original location.
Three generations of Paynes have kept this modest cinder block building with a recessed pit filled with hickory coals going for four decades. Known for their mustard slaw and barbecued bologna, this spot’s specialty is serving pork that’s chopped, not pulled. Owner Ronald Payne says, “Crispy and smoky bits in the meat and sweet ‘n tangy dressings makes a chopped pork sandwich that stands out from any sandwich you’ve ever had.”
Tarrance and Torria Pollard are the proud parents of local football star, Tony Pollard, who now plays for the Dallas Cowboys. So, if you like to talk football while you eat your BBQ, Pollard’s is the place for you. What started as a catering business is now a friendly, welcoming Whitehaven home to smoked pork, beef, chicken, and turkey. You’ll also find links, tamales, and more. Consider getting your hot links served Ultimate style: cut up with peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, and onions, and covered with a special mustard sauce.
Charles Vergos' Rendezvous
The standard for “Memphis style” barbecue ribs was set in the late ‘50s in a downtown basement restaurant when Charlie Vergos threw racks of ribs—what was then considered scrap meat—on the grill. He added a vinegar wash to keep them moist and created a dry rub based on his father’s unique Greek chili recipe, cajun spices he discovered in New Orleans, and paprika. These ribs are a rack of history, but the Cheese and Sausage Plate, the Brisket, and the Pork Shoulder Sandwich are also worth your time.
Tops is our fast food answer to barbecue. Every one of the 16 locations cooks their shoulders over charcoal in open pits. They’re also known for their cheeseburgers, but it’s standard practice to add a little barbecue meat (sold by the ounce) to the burger for the quintessential Tops experience. As far as sides go, you can opt for beans, slaw, potato salad, fries, or chips. They been open for 70 years, so they must be doing something right.