Barbecue is as quintessentially American as apple pie or baseball. Each region has its own definition of what constitutes proper barbecue, and each is willing to fight for the title of “the best.” Some states or regions prefer their meats smoked slowly over hickory wood, while others use hardwood coals; St. Louis focuses on meaty ribs, while Texas is all about the beef; and of course, one of the deciding factors of great barbecue is the sauce (tangy, sweet, spicy…) — or lack thereof. Whether you spell it BBQ, Bar-B-Q, or barbecue, the craving for the delicious combo of juicy meat and smokiness is universal and hard to ignore.
America has hundreds, if not thousands, of barbecue joints, and choosing the best of the independents is nearly impossible, and at the very least a tough call — though we've undertaken the challenge in the past. But we've also ranked a different kind of barbecue restaurant: the chain — which can mean anything from a handful of places clustered around the same city or a large-scale operation covering many states.
Not all chains serve 'cue of the highest quality, because they rely on production lines and cost-cutting measures to deliver food that’s as inexpensive and quickly made as possible. When it comes to good barbecue, though, taking shortcuts just doesn’t work. Barbecue-lovers can tell when the meat is low-grade or the restaurant is employing artificial means to give it smoky flavor. Take the easy way out with pizza or burritos? Maybe. But try it with barbecue and people will get sore.
The owners and operators of the restaurants on this list keep this fact in mind, and their integrity comes through in the food they serve. This is not a list of the best barbecue joints in America, but of the best chains. In order to assemble our ranking, we created a survey listing nearly 70 chains and asked you, our readers, to vote for your favorites. Hundreds of you complied. Read on to learn which chain came out on top, and which ones filled out our list.
Additional reporting by Dan Myers.