Nashville Experts Share Their Favorite Places to Eat Barbecue
We can practically smell the smoker.
When it comes to barbecue, Nashville isn’t Memphis, and that’s okay. The fact that three major interstates cross within a mile of each other in downtown means that Nashville features smoked meat specialties that are native to the regions at each end of those highways: St. Louis-style ribs, Alabama white sauce smoked chicken, tangy Carolina vinegar, and -- yes -- Memphis dry ribs.
Local pitmaster Carey Bringle, known as the Peg Leg Porker after losing a leg to cancer in high school, is right proud of his dry-rubbed ribs, though he says there is no prototypical Nashville style. “We have many great options to choose from, and newer players that have entered the market have done so with very good, quality barbecue,” he says.
Bringle believes that people spend way too much time arguing about who has the “best” barbecue. “I strongly believe that it’s not a requirement for you to hate someone else’s barbecue in order to love mine. Over the last 10 years, the Nashville market has proven to be among the best in the country and barbecue fans can rejoice that they now have about as many options and styles as they could ever want.”
Here are our suggestions for some of those excellent choices, plus expert commentary from Nashville barbecue aficionado Steve Cavendish, who has written extensively about local food, sports, and news. Just like the bright lights on Broadway, the vast barbecue options in Nashville give you plenty to choose from
Pat Martin’s downtown outpost of his growing barbecue empire is definitely the jewel of the crown. The massive building boasts a full-service restaurant on the ground floor and a huge beer garden upstairs with picnic tables, a stage for live music, two bars, games and private dining space for up to 150 guests. Four whole hog pits contribute a hickory-smoked incense that draws tourists and locals alike into the pitmaster playground for an evening of fun. Order any of Martin’s meats on a corn cake known as a Redneck Taco for a unique experience. As Cavendish recommends: “Come for the whole hog, but don't forget the bologna.”
The godfather of BBQ in Nashville, Jack Cawthon opened this spot in 1976 overlooking the riverfront on Broadway and 1st Ave. It was one of the few successful restaurants on lower Broad back when Demonbreun St was nothing but wax museums. Today, there are three total locations, and the original now sits just a few blocks up next to Tootsies. It doesn’t discriminate on style, with a range of Tennessee pork shoulder, what Cavendish calls “sneaky good Texas brisket,” smoked Boston turkey, and St. Louis ribs -- and it's all delicious.
“Sometimes I like to arrive early just to enjoy the sweet smoke coming off the pit out front,” Cavendish says. Beloved by tourists for its biscuits and fried chicken, locals know The Loveless Café as a reliable spot for quality barbecue. Just a mere 20 minutes from Downtown, it’s worth the drive to sink your teeth into the pit-cooked pork with honey blackberry barbecue sauce, or the pit-smoked turkey with cranberry barbecue sauce. Watermelon ribs are a specialty you’ll not likely see anywhere else in town, so don’t skip it.
Tucked behind the high rises of the Gulch, Peg Leg Porker has become a star on the Nashville barbecue scene since opening in 2013, and an expanded second story offers even more drinking and dining space in the “Pig Pen.” Bringle was raised on West Tennessee traditions and smokes his barbecue low and slow (as the pork gods intended) with a Memphis-style sauce on the side. As Cavendish puts it: “Bringle's ribs are so good they converted me to a fan of dry rub.” Try the Memphis Sushi -- a sausage and cheese platter on saltines -- or the BBQ nachos to start, followed by the dry ribs, pulled pork platter, or the yardbird smothered in a tangy, white sauce with a Kool-Aid pickle on the side.
Edley’s is pretty much the perfect combination of BBQ and the Southern tradition of meat and three. While its East Nashville location took a wallop during the March tornado, Edley’s will soon have all three of its Nashville locations in 12th South, East Nashville, and Sylvan Park back up and smokin’. We recommend the Tuck Special, a brisket sandwich with housemade spicy pimento cheese, over-easy egg, and red and white sauce, or perhaps the pork tacos with slaw and pico de gallo. Sides are made daily, ranging from eight to 10 choices of secret family recipes and Cavendish especially appreciates one in particular. “Give proper respect to the place that will let you have banana pudding as a side item,” he says.
Puckett’s is known for its Southern staples like the chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, and meat and three platters, but its cherry wood-smoked barbecue is some of the best around. Cavendish calls the downtown spot “the best option for a power lunch instead of a steakhouse.” And the serving options are endless -- whether you choose pulled pork, brisket, ribs or chicken, you can have it in a skillet, on a platter with greens and smoked Gouda mac, in a sandwich like the Tennessee Philly and Mojo Burger, or in a tortilla known as the “Redneck Burrito.”
Bar-B-Cutie is a long-running Nashville tradition that started out in a downtown pie wagon in 1940 then became a South Nashville Car Hop in the ‘50s, all before evolving into a successful smokehouse chain with multiple locations throughout Middle Tennessee and beyond. It’s a place that Cavendish’s father-in-law “swore by for 40 years.” Its Southern-style sides are made fresh daily and the banana pudding is certainly worth the struggle of saving room for dessert.
Butchertown Hall may not be what you’d expect from a best-of-barbecue list, but this eatery smokes some of the juiciest, German-inspired barbecue with a taste of Texas Hill Country. Its brisket is slow-cooked for 14 hours over white oak chips, charred to perfection, and served with either handmade tortillas, Texas toast, or on a sandwich. Ambiance plays a big role here, as Cavendish points out: “It's always comforting to walk in and see both wood and fire.” Go for the Texas Trinity and sample the brisket with ribs and house-made sausage.
While grocery store shelves are filled with dozens of different types of barbecue sauces, the vast majority of sales come from bottles filled with a nicely balanced sweet/heat flavor profile. At HoneyFire BBQ in Bellevue, pitmaster Shane Nasby has embraced what the people want with his combo of sweet and spice. Whether its smoked chicken wings tossed in the sauce or smoky ribs slathered with sweet and sticky lacquer, it just works. HoneyFire -- which Cavendish calls “an essential addition to the west side of town” -- also features over-the-top sandwiches like the Southern Shine, topped with pulled pork, fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese and candied bacon.
Barbecue joints are certainly known for their lack of pretentiousness, but no place in town is more modest than The Gambling Stick, a small food truck and canvas tent tucked into the corner of Porter Road Butcher’s parking lot, and Cavendish’s “favorite east-side place for pig.” Try the “pigsket” for a unique flavor and textural experience that you won’t find in a regular ol’ pulled shoulder sandwich. And the sweet and spicy baked beans flavored with burnt ends is one of the most remarkable side dishes in town.
Mainly known for soul food and meat and three fare, Swett’s upped its barbecue game a few years back when it added a new serving line and modern smokehouse dedicated to just smoked meats including ribs, pulled pork, chicken, brisket, and pork chops. It also serves delicious rib tips, a specialized dish found more often in Chicago than in the South. “After a decade in Chicago,” Cavendish says, “it was good to come home and find rib tips on a menu.” Finish off your meal with one of Swett’s signature cobblers.
Like the Cracker Barrel of barbecue, Jim ‘N Nick’s tends to locate their restaurants near interstate exits and concentrates on a fanatical dedication to offering up consistent products from restaurant to restaurant. The cheese biscuits are legendary (“we have been known to order a dozen cheddar biscuits with a takeout order,” Cavendish says) and the Smoked Pork Hot Link app served with pimento cheese, saltines, and serrano peppers is enough for a meal itself.
Memphis meets Nashville at this outpost of the beloved Bluff City barbecue chain. At their first location outside of Memphis, Central BBQ showcases their unique West Tennessee style with dishes like BBQ Nachos topped with your choice of smoked pork shoulder, chicken, turkey or beef, huge slabs of smoky ribs, beef brisket and pulled pork. While the Memphis vs. Nashville barbecue debate still rages on, at Central you can have the best of both! “As much as I hate admitting Memphis is good at anything,” Cavendish says, “it's a worthy addition, especially the baked beans.”
Even though they’ve added a small dining room, the vibe at Mary’s still harkens back to the days when it was primarily a takeaway operation. The iconic rib sandwich, which Cavendish describes as “a glorious mess” is basically a half rack of spares served with two pieces of white bread. Mary’s has earned the right to stretch the definition of “sandwich.”
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