The 14 Best BBQ Joints in Nashville, According to Local Experts
In any style you could want.
When it comes to barbecue, Nashville isn’t Memphis, and that’s OK. 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 tomato sauces, 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, and he thinks Music City is a fine spot for barbecue, even if there is no prototypical “Nashville style” of ‘cue. "The current state of Nashville barbecue is great!” he says. “We have many great options to choose from, and newer players that have entered the market have done so with very good, quality barbecue. We have a great barbecue community, and most everyone gets along, which is in sync with the barbecue community as a whole.”
Bringle believes that people spend way too much time arguing about who has the “best” barbecue. “I strongly believe in the statement that I printed on the cups in my restaurant. It's not a requirement for you to hate someone else's BBQ in order to love mine. Over the last 10 years, the Nashville barbecue market has proven to be among the best in the country. Barbecue fans can rejoice that they now have about as many options and styles to choose from as they could ever want!" Here are our suggestions for some of those excellent choices, plus expert commentary from Nashville BBQ aficionado Steve Cavendish, who has written about Music City food, sports and news for media outlets ranging from the New York Times to the Nashville Scene to the Nashville City Paper.
Edley’s is pretty much the perfect combination of BBQ and the Southern tradition of meat and three, with three outposts 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. And if you think there’s nothing new left to discover in the world of ‘cue, Edley’s has worked to make their innovative Nashville Hot BBQ a thing, and it is! Sides are made daily, ranging from eight to 10 choices of secret family recipes.
Cavendish says: “Give proper respect to the place that will let you have banana pudding as a side item.”
Peg Leg Porker
Tucked behind the high rises of the Gulch, Peg Leg Porker has become a star on the Nashville BBQ scene since opening in 2013, and an expanded second story offers even more drinking and dining space in the “Pig Pen.” Plus, he has plans to open Bringle’s Smoking Oasis in The Nations and another spot in the airport as part of his plans for world barbie domination. A Nashville native, pitmaster Carey 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. 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.
Cavendish says: “Bringle's ribs are so good they converted me to a fan of dry rub.”
Shotgun Willie’s BBQ
Beef brisket used to be an afterthought at Nashville barbecue joints, rarely attempted and basically just tolerated as a change of pace from the usual porktopia. Once Bill Laviolette started importing Prime brisket and sausages from his home state of Texas and cooking them in his massive smoker, local barbecue lovers finally discovered what they had been missing. Now he’s the undisputed smoke beef king of Nashville and a welcome addition to the local barbecue scene. Order plates of meat “market-style” by the ¼ pound, and he’ll keep piling it on your plate until you cry uncle.
Cavendish is obviously a huge fan: “Shotgun Willie's is the best brisket in Nashville and second place is a distant second. There's just nobody else close. And you know, that would be good enough, but his sides are fantastic, including a 4-bean take on baked beans that I order every single time and cole slaw that pairs up well with fatty cuts of beef or pork.”
A few other barbecue joints have occupied this converted house off of Charlotte Pike, but nobody hit it big until The Ridge came in and took the menu over the top with loaded sandwiches and a few Latin-inspired specialty dishes. The BBQ Totchos come with tater tots topped with your choice of smoked meat, shredded cheese, sour cream, scallions, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and the number of a good cardiologist. If somebody in your party isn’t feeling the barbecue, point them to the decadent smoked bologna or a roster of inventive burgers.
Cavendish is willing to die on this particular Ridge: “I'm always a fan of things on top of things. Sure, a pulled pork sandwich is good, but at the Ridge you can get it topped with a fried green tomato and bacon. It's a BPT instead of a BLT, something any meat lover should prefer.”
Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint
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 corncake known as a Redneck Taco for a unique experience.
Cavendish says: “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, Texas brisket, smoked Boston turkey, and St. Louis ribs -- and it's all delicious.
Cavendish says: “Sneaky good brisket!”
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.
Cavendish says: “Sometimes I like to arrive early just to enjoy the sweet smoke coming off the pit out front.”
Puckett's Grocery & Restaurant
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. 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 ‘n’ cheese, in a sandwich like the Tennessee Philly and Mojo Burger, or in a tortilla known as the “Redneck Burrito.”
Cavendish says: “The best option for a power lunch instead of a steakhouse.”
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. Its Southern-style sides are made fresh daily and the banana pudding is certainly worth the struggle of saving room for dessert.
Cavendish says: “This is the place my father-in-law swore by for 40 years.”
The Gambling Stick
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. But, oh, what they’re cooking up in that tiny trailer! Try the “pigsket” for a unique flavor and textural experience that you won’t find in a regular ole pulled shoulder sandwich. And the sweet and spicy baked beans flavored with burnt ends is one of the most remarkable side dishes at any BBQ joint in town.
Cavendish says: “My favorite east-side place for pig!”
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 serve delicious rib tips, a specialized dish found more often in Chicago than in the South. Pro tip: finish off your meal with one of Swett’s signature cobblers.
Cavendish says: “After a decade in Chicago, it was good to come home and find rib tips on a menu.”
Jim 'n Nick's Bar-B-Q
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 product from restaurant to restaurant. Their cheese biscuits are legendary and the Smoked Pork Hot Link app served with pimento cheese, saltines and serrano peppers is enough to make a meal out of.
Cavendish says: “We have been known to order a dozen (or two) cheddar biscuits with a takeout order.”
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. Their iconic rib sandwich is basically a half rack of spares served with two pieces of white bread. They’ve earned the right to stretch the definition of “sandwich.”
Cavendish says: “The rib sandwich is a glorious mess!”
Honeyfire Barbeque Co.
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 Co. 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 also features over-the-top sandwiches like the Southern Shine, topped with pulled pork, fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese and candied bacon.
Cavendish says: “An essential addition to the west side of town.”
Chris Chamberlain is a Nashville food, drink and travel writer and the author of The Southern Foodie’s Guide to the Pig. So he knows of what he Tweets when he’s talkin’ barbecue. Follow his latest rising cholesterol numbers at @CeeElCee.