Where to Eat Nashville’s Finest Barbecue
From burnt ends to watermelon ribs, Music City’s barbecue scene has a lot to offer.
When it comes to barbecue, Nashville isn’t Memphis. There’s no prototypical “Nashville style” of barbecue, and that’s okay. The fact that three major interstates cross within a mile of each other 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. There are plenty of options out there; here are the best of the best.
This Memphis-based restaurant group arrived in Nashville with a splash, bringing its brand of Bluff City barbecue to the state capitol. Often considered one of the originators of barbecue nachos, a gooey plate of tortilla chips and smoked pulled pork or chicken topped with barbecue sauce, cheese sauce, shredded cheese, and jalapeños, Central isn’t exactly heart-healthy (but it sure is damned tasty). Make sure to dive into a plate of smoked hot wings, served with both the drummie and flat connected for a delicious handful of a wing. Central offers options like Wet, Naked, Jerked, Dry Spice, Honey Gold, or Sweet Heat to season the wings, and it might take a few return visits to pick a favorite.
How to book: Order online for carryout or delivery through Uber Eats.
Zilla’s Pit BBQ
At Zilla’s Pit BBQ food truck, pitmaster Terrance “Big Perm” Nicholson has earned a vaunted reputation for cooking some pretty hefty pork ribs on his portable smoker. In fact, Kingsford Charcoal’s “Preserve the Pit” program recognizes Nicholson as a torchbearer for the history and future of Black pitmasters in America. Fans check Zilla’s website daily to see where the truck will set up shop because they know that the West Tennessee-inspired barbecue is worth seeking out wherever it is. The opportunity to buy Zilla’s rib tips by the pound is proof that we deserve to be happy.
How to book: Track down the truck online to find out where to order from the window.
Tex's World Famous Bar-B-Q
Since 1979, Tex’s has been kind of a novel combination of Texas-style smokehouse and meat-and-three, offering lunch-only service from a steam table piled high with your choice of meats including sausage, pulled pork, barbecue bologna, turkey, and beef brisket along with an array of Southern sides like mac ‘n cheese and turnip greens. Prices are reasonable, and you can’t beat the convenience. Depending on your appetite, you can order the Weight Watcher platter, which is a small portion of meat and two sides, or show up on Monday or Tuesday for the special Two Trips Down the Buffet deal for just $14.75. It’s nice to have options.
How to book: Make table reservations online or order carryout of barbecue by the pound and sides by the pint, quart, or gallon.
You might not expect Butchertown Hall to rank as one of the best barbecue spots since their menu goes far beyond just grilled meats, but this eatery smokes some of the juiciest, German-inspired barbecue with a taste of Texas Hill Country. Brisket gets slow-cooked for 14 hours over white oak chips, charred to perfection, and served with either handmade tortillas, Texas toast, or on a sandwich. Go for the Texas Trinity and sample the brisket with ribs and housemade sausage.
How to book: Make reservations on Resy.
Bringle’s Smoking Oasis
Peg Leg Porker pitmaster Carey Bringle turned his attention from West Tennessee to Texas at his latest smoked meat emporium. While you’ll still find pork on the menu, the selections are much beefier than at his original spot in the Gulch. From smoky brisket to massive beef ribs and smoked prime rib, it’s a carnivore’s delight. The expansive outdoor area has quickly become a popular neighborhood hang thanks to picnic tables for families, huge televisions for watching the big game, local craft brews, and frozen cocktails. If you’ve got a hankering for genuine burnt ends, this is the spot to head for something novel in this pork-centric town.
How to book: No reservations, and brisket doesn’t travel well, so walk inside and place your order.
Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint
Pat Martin’s downtown outpost of his growing barbecue empire is definitely his crown jewel. The massive building boasts a full-service restaurant on the ground floor, plus 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. Order any of Martin’s meats on a corn cake (known as a Redneck taco) for a unique experience.
How to book: No reservations, but you can order online for delivery, carryout or curbside pickup.
Beloved by tourists for its biscuits and fried chicken, locals know The Loveless Cafe 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 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.
How to book: Beat the crowds by ordering online and then pulling into one of their designated carryout parking spots.
Jim 'n Nick's Bar-B-Q
Like a Cracker Barrel, Jim ‘n Nick’s tends to locate restaurants near interstate exits and concentrates on a fanatical dedication to offering up consistent product from restaurant to restaurant. The cheese biscuits are legendary and the smoked pork hot link appetizer served with pimento cheese, saltines, and serrano peppers is enough to make a meal.
How to book: Delivery, carryout, and curbside pickup are available online. No reservations.
Edley’s perfectly combines barbecue and the Southern meat-and-three tradition by featuring both great smoked meats and excellent down-home side dishes at their four outposts in 12th South, East Nashville, Donelson and Sylvan Park. Try the Tuck Special, a brisket sandwich with spicy house-made pimento cheese, an over-easy egg, and red and white sauce. Or try the pork tacos with sweet and tart slaw and pico de gallo. And for those who believe there’s nothing new left to discover in the world of barbecue, Edley’s is changing the game with its innovative Nashville Hot Barbecue, the barbecue version of spicy Nashville Hot Chicken. Each day the kitchen uses secret family recipes to prepare eight to 10 side options, like creamy mac n’ cheese and banana pudding (you read that correctly, banana pudding is a side) like Grandma made.
How to book: Order online from the nearest location.
Peg Leg Porker
Tucked behind the high rises of the Gulch, Peg Leg Porker has become a star on the Nashville barbecue scene since opening in 2013. An expanded second story offers even more drinking and dining space in the “Pig Pen.” A Nashville native, pitmaster Carey Bringle was raised on West Tennessee traditions and he smokes his barbecue low and slow (as the pork gods intended) with a Memphis-style sauce on the side. To start, try the Memphis Sushi, a sausage and cheese platter served with saltines, or the decadent barbecue nachos, 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.
How to book: Order for carryout on Toast.
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 smoked beef king of Nashville. Order plates of meat “market-style” by the quarter pound, and he’ll keep piling it on your plate until you cry ‘uncle.’ Sides include a four-bean take on baked beans. (The restaurant recently announced plans to move to a new, larger location by the end of the year.)
How to book: Call (615) 942-9188 for carryout, but if they’re busy, they don’t promise they’ll answer the phone. Walk-up is always available.
Nashville’s godfather of barbecue, Jack Cawthon, opened this spot overlooking the riverfront on Broadway and 1st Avenue in 1976. It was one of the few successful restaurants on Lower Broad back when Demonbreun Street was nothing but wax museums. Today, there are three total locations, and the original now sits just a few blocks up next to Tootsies. Cawthon 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.
How to book: Online ordering is available at all three locations: Downtown, Midtown, or North Nashville.
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 a modern smokehouse exclusively dedicated to 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. To finish, grab one of Swett’s peach or blackberry cobblers.
How to book: No reservations or online ordering. Take a trip down the steam table and point at whatever looks most delicious.
Mary's Old Fashioned Pit Bar-B-Que
The vibe at Mary’s still harkens back to the days when barbecue was a takeaway food, so step up to the window and ask for extra napkins if you plan to eat in your car. The deliciously messy rib “sandwich” 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.
How to book: Order online for carryout.
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 and heat flavor profile. At HoneyFire Barbeque Co. in Bellevue, the kitchen has embraced the crowd favorite with a combo of sweet and spice. Whether it's 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.
How to book: HoneyFire accepts carryout orders by phone at (615) 739-6121, but they’d prefer you order online instead.
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.