America’s 25 Best Barbecue Chains for 2015
May 6, 2015
These chains have figured out the formula for great barbecue
America’s 25 Best Barbecue Chains
Barbecue is one of those foods that’s fiercely regional. In Texas, it’s all about the beef; in Carolina, the focus is pork; and so on. Thankfully, there are great barbecue restaurants all across the country with multiple locations that are spreading the barbecue gospel far and wide. We surveyed nearly 10,000 folks from across the country, and these are the 25 chains that received the most votes.
#25 Dickey’s BBQ Pit
With more than 470 locations in 42 states, Dickey’s, founded by Travis Dickey more than 70 years ago, is the world’s largest barbecue franchise. Each location pit-smokes its meat on the premises, and free kids’ meals are still offered every Sunday. While it’s certainly old-fashioned, that’s more the result of an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy. Meats are served by the pound, and include Southern-style pulled pork, hickory-smoked brisket, honey ham, spicy Cheddar and Polish sausages, pork ribs, chicken, and turkey breast. There are no frills at Dickey’s, just solid, honest-to-goodness barbecue.
#24 City Barbeque
With six Ohio locations, two in Kentucky, and one each in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Indianapolis, City Barbeque has been dishing up award-winning craft barbecue since 1999. Meats are smoked upwards of 18 hours, and while the owners don’t claim to hew to any particular region’s style, they’re really representing the best of all worlds — and doing it well. Brisket, pulled pork, pulled pork with slaw, turkey, pulled chicken with Alabama white sauce, and smoked sausage are sold on a bun, on their own, or by the pound, and St. Louis-cut ribs come slathered in their classic barbecue sauce. Sides and desserts are scratch-made daily; don’t miss the gumbo, hush puppies, or banana pudding.
#23 Moe’s Original Bar B Que
With 35 locations mostly in Alabama and Colorado (but some in California, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and even Maine), Moe’s is doing barbecue right. It was founded by three friends who met at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and since 2001, it has grown from a small slopeside catering operation to a barbecue destination. They still offer catering, but a trip to any of their restaurants is sure to be a good time, and is also a great primer in Alabama-style barbecue. Pork and chicken are their showcased items, topped with the signature Alabama white sauce, but the Angus beef brisket, hot links, St. Louis spare ribs, and fried catfish are also worth saving room for.
#22 Billy Sims BBQ
If the name Billy Sims sounds familiar, it’s probably because he was a Heisman Trophy winner, All-American, the No. 1 draft pick, Rookie of the Year in 1980, and spent four and a half seasons as running back for the Detroit Lions. The St. Louis native has put just as much energy into his barbecue as he did football, and his eponymous chain of more than 40 restaurants, mostly in Oklahoma, is a winner. Brisket, ribs, pulled pork, sausages, turkey, chicken, and bologna (don’t knock it till you try it) are all smoked low and slow, and have developed a rabid following across the region. Save room for a chili cheese dog if you can.
#21 Old Carolina BBQ Company
Old Carolina was inspired by the roadside shacks you’ll find in the Carolinas, and the menu at their nine (soon to be 10) locations in Ohio (plus one in Ann Arbor, Michigan) reflects just that, with Carolina-style pulled pork as a menu highlight, along with beef brisket, ribs, pulled chicken, and turkey. All meats are smoked for up to 14 hours over hickory wood, and the no-frills menu is rounded out by Southern classics like hush puppies, Brunswick stew, banana pudding, sweet tea, and Cheerwine, the Carolina classic soft drink. Five sauces are available to go.
#20 Red Hot & Blue
Founded 25 years ago in Arlington, Virginia, by a group of Southern transplants (including the late former RNC chairman Lee Atwater, from Atlanta, and former Tennessee governor and House member Don Sundquist) looking for good barbecue in D.C., the chain today has additional locations in Maryland, Texas, New Jersey, Missouri, and North Carolina. The restaurants have a distinctly Southern vibe, with menu items including fried Delta catfish and chicken-fried steak, but it’s the barbecue that’s been the secret to its success. St. Louis-style ribs are served wet, dry-rubbed, or sweet; pulled chicken and pork are hickory-smoked low and slow; brisket is served sliced or chopped; housemade sausages are smoked and grilled; and, thankfully, sampler platters are available so you can try a little bit of everything.
#19 Woody's Bar-B-Q
Woody’s got its start in Jacksonville, Florida more than 30 years ago, and today there are 28 franchised locations in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. The baby back ribs fall off the bone, and other specialties include smoked prime rib, Carolina pulled pork, beef, turkey breast, and chicken. Don’t miss the fried squash, Brunswick stew, or corn nuggets, either.
#18 Famous Dave’s
A Minnesota-based chain founded by a Chippewa Indian might be a surprising place to find great barbecue, but Dave Anderson really knows his stuff. Since starting the company in 1994, he’s opened more than 200 locations and is also a formidable contender on the competitive barbecue circuit. Anderson has mastered just about every variety of barbecue, and it’s all on display on his menu. Texas beef brisket is dry-rubbed and hickory-smoked, Georgia-style chopped pork is smoked for 12 hours, Memphis-style rib tips are coated in a spicy dry rub, and the St. Louis-style spare ribs are smoked for four hours, then slathered in a sweet and sticky sauce and grilled until they’re caramelized. Don’t leave without trying the brisket burnt ends; they’re tender, smoky, and caramelized in a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce that you can (thankfully) bring home a bottle of.
#17 Rib City
This Florida-based chain started out as a family-run restaurant in Fort Myers and today has nearly 30 locations from Virginia Beach to Washington State. Baby backs, St. Louis spare ribs, thin-sliced beef, pulled pork, chicken, turkey, and riblets are basted with signature barbecue sauce before heading to the oak smoker. The menu is small and no-frills, but that’s the way it should be: at a place called Rib City, you’d expect the ribs to be amazing, and they are.
#16 Dinosaur BBQ
What started as a honky-tonk-style rib joint in Syracuse, New York, in 1988 has exploded in popularity over the years, offering some of the best barbecue available in the Northeast. Today there are locations in Rochester, Buffalo, and Troy, New York; Newark, New Jersey; Stamford, Connecticut; Baltimore; Chicago; Harlem; and Brooklyn, and long waits every night of the week. What do the crowds line up for? Brisket pit-smoked for 14 hours, both classic and Carolina-style pulled pork, homemade hot links, smoked chicken, and slow-smoked St. Louis ribs for those looking for classic barbecue; and killer burgers, pulled pork poutine, smoked wings, peel & eat shrimp, and sandwiches like the Chopped Melt (chopped brisket tossed with barbecue sauce, sautéed onions, and melted Cheddar pressed in a Cuban roll) for those looking for something different. Dinosaur is a fun, rollicking kind of place with plenty of live music and an extensive beer and cocktail list. You can also buy bottles of their legendary dry rub and barbecue sauce.
#15 OakWood Smokehouse & Grill
This chain got its start in Lake County, Florida, 17 years ago and has five locations in the state today, proving that Sunshine State barbecue can hold its own. The menu is expansive, full of options like au jus beef, burgers, and grilled fish, but don’t be fooled: it’s all about the ‘cue. Chopped or sliced pork, chicken, beef, turkey, and sausage are all slow-smoked over oak, and the award-winning ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender.
With eight locations throughout East and Middle Tennessee, this Knoxville-based chain has become legendary in its home state since it first launched in 1983 and won the National Rib Cook-Off the following year. Hickory-smoked baby back ribs are still prepared with the award-winning recipe, and their smoked pork plate and smoked chicken can hold their own against the country’s finest. Other specialties include Southern-fried catfish, prime rib dinner, beer cheese dip, and fresh-baked soft pretzels.
#13 Smokey Bones
This Florida-based chain has 67 locations in 17 states, and the name doesn’t lie: there’s some serious hickory smoke going on at every location, 24 hours a day. Pulled pork is hickory-smoked for 11 hours, beef brisket is available after 4 p.m. every day after being smoked for 14 hours and sells out regularly, turkey is smoked for three hours, and ribs (both baby back and St. Louis-style) are smoked for four hours. Go for their top-seller, the pulled pork: each location goes through between 70 and 100 pounds of it daily, and you have more than 40 beer options to wash it all down with.
#12 Full Moon BBQ
With five locations in the Greater Birmingham area and six more throughout the state, Full Moon, run by brothers David and Joe Maluff, is an Alabama legend. Every location smokes its meat low and slow over a hickory wood-fired pit. Barbecue pork makes several appearances on the menu (including sliced in sandwiches and chopped on nachos), and the black Angus beef brisket, turkey, chicken, ribs, and pork links keep the crowds coming back for more. Every plate comes with a helping of the famous chow chow (a sweet, spicy, and tangy cabbage-based relish), and the two signature sauces — Alabama white sauce and sweet barbecue sauce — are addictively good. Make sure you stock up on their half moon cookies, a house specialty.
#11 Bodacious Bar-B-Q
Locations of this chain have been spreading throughout Texas since the first one opened in Duncanville in 1960. All meats are smoked over mesquite wood, and while the brisket takes center stage (as it should in Texas), the ribs, turkey hot links, and ham (which is only available around Thanksgiving and Christmas) are also the stuff of legend.
#10 Bono’s Pit Bar-B-Q
Great barbecue is an experience as much as it is a food, and at Bono’s the goal is to give each customer a true southern BBQ experience, just like it’s done since Lou Bono opened the first location in 1949. There are 21 locations throughout the country (most are in Florida), but that Southern hospitality is present at every outpost. Pork, brisket, turkey, sausage, chicken, and St. Louis and baby back ribs are served with Texas toast and two sides, but if you’re able save room, try one of the “Smokehouse Stackers,” including Bo-Hawg (BBQ pork topped with Cheddar and a sausage link), Bird Dog (smoked turkey topped with sausage), and their classic BBQ Po-Boy — they’re nothing short of legendary. Oh, and don’t forget the Brunswick stew and sweet corn nuggets. And the smoked wings. And the banana pudding. On second thought, you might need to make a few trips.
#9 Rudy’s Country Store & Bar-B-Q
Rudy’s has about 30 locations in Texas and seven more throughout the Southwest, and they’re Texas-style through and through. Brisket, sausage, turkey, ribs, chicken, and pork loin are given a hefty dry rub and long-smoked with 100 percent oak. The menu is no-frills, with just meat and sides, including three bean salad, creamed corn, a jumbo smoked potato, and green chili stew, but that’s the way it should be. Rudy’s will ship its meats, rubs, and famous “sause” nationwide.
#8 Dreamland Bar-B-Que
This Alabama chain has eight locations throughout the state, but got its start in Tuscaloosa in 1958, rising to fame due to the hickory-smoked ribs and sauce cooked by founder John “Big Daddy” Bishop and his wife Miss Lilly. Those recipes haven’t ever changed, and neither has the down-home feel of all of its locations. The menu has expanded, albeit slightly, to include sausage, chicken, chopped pork, and a handful of appetizers and sides, but the ribs are what keep customers coming back. Don’t believe it? Order some for yourself.
#7 Shane's Rib Shack
Shane and Stacey Thompson opened the first Shane’s Rib Shack in 2002 in a literal roadside shack on Highway 155 in McDonough, Georgia, featuring Shane’s grandfather’s recipes, and between 2004 and 2008 it grew from two locations to a whopping 85. While there are outposts in 12 states, most remain in Georgia. There’s plenty to choose from on the menu, including smoked wings, loaded baked potatoes, and chicken tenders, but the reason for its overwhelming success is the meat: BBQ pork is hand-carved, and baby back ribs are tender and juicy. Make sure to drop in on a Friday, when beef brisket is also available.
#6 Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue
This Kansas City-based chain, whose roots go all the back to 1957, has three locations in the city proper, one in Overland Park, and a fifth in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. Jack’s Stack is classic Kansas City all the way, using hickory wood fire to quickly smoke lots of different varieties of meat, including pork spare ribs, beef ribs, baby back ribs, beef brisket (including burnt ends), turkey, ham, pork, sausage, rack of lamb, and several types of seafood. Don’t miss the hickory pit beans or cheesy corn bake, and if you can’t make it to one of the locations, they’ll ship nationwide.
#5 Corky’s BBQ
Hickory-smoked ribs are the claim to fame at Corky’s, a 31-year-old Memphis institution that boasts five Tennessee locations, two in Arkansas, and one in Mississippi. Corky’s ribs are rubbed, basted, and smoked for 18 hours, and are available dry or wet (that is, with or without sauce). Pork shoulder, smoked chicken and turkey, and smoked sausage are also worth the visit, as are Memphis staples like the smoked sausage and cheese plate and fried catfish. You’ll also find some unexpected treats, like chili-topped hot tamales and an onion loaf. Come hungry!
#4 4 Rivers Smokehouse
4 Rivers is the brainchild of Florida barbecue master John Rivers. Since opening in October 2009, it has become incredibly well-respected, with nine operating smokehouses across the state. Rivers’ backstory is certainly nontraditional: He spent 20 years in the healthcare industry, but during his travels he decided to learn everything there is to know about barbecue, and after retiring he set about perfecting his own recipes. The smoker at each location is on at full blast throughout the day and night, smoking everything from Angus brisket, St. Louis ribs, pork shoulders, and chicken to wings, jalapeños, and a “brontosaurus” beef rib. The meat alone is enough to leave you happy and satisfied, but don’t forget about the sandwiches, like the famed Texas Destroyer: smoked brisket, onion rings, jalapeños, and melted provolone smothered in house barbecue sauce.
#3 Jim ‘N Nick’s BBQ
If you’re going to open a chain of barbecue restaurants in the Carolinas, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, and Colorado, you better make sure that your product is on-point. A visit to Jim ‘N Nick’s, which was founded in 1985 by a father-son duo in Birmingham, Alabama, and now has 34 locations (with three more in the works), will show you that this is the real deal. Perennial exhibitors at best-of-the-best showcases like New York’s Big Apple BBQ Block Party, they’re smoking their own pork (sold pulled or chopped with a vinegary Carolina-style sauce), spare and baby back ribs, house-cured bone-in ham, legendary housemade pork hot links, chicken, turkey breast, and beef brisket, all served with a big dose of Southern hospitality. They also offer a killer hickory-grilled burger and pimento cheese sandwich, but honestly, you’re going to want to reserve all the room in your stomach for this crazy-good barbecue.
#2 Gates Bar B-Q
Ask anyone in Kansas City where to get a true Kansas City barbecue experience, and odds are they’ll point you in the direction of the nearest Gates. There are six locations in the Kansas City metropolitan area, all carrying on a family tradition dating back to 1946. As at any Kansas City classic, the sauce here is legendary — sweet, slightly smoky, tangy, and just a little bit spicy — but the meat stands on its own. Ribs come via full slab, short end, center cut, or long end (something you rarely see in most barbecue joints), and you can also get chicken, sausage, mutton, beef, ham, turkey, or pork by the pound or in a sandwich. When in Kansas City, don’t miss Gates.
#1 Sonny's BBQ
For nearly 50 years, Sonny’s has been serving real-deal Southern-style barbecue. The barbecue joint got its start in Gainesville, Florida, when Sonny Tillman and his wife Lucille opened the first restaurant in 1968; they began to franchise nine years later. Today, there are more than 150 locations across nine states, and the chain received far more votes in our survey than any other. Pork is served pulled or sliced; ribs are served wet, dry, St. Louis-style, or baby back; and all the meats, including beef brisket, chicken, and turkey breast, are smoked for up to 12 hours at each location. A bottomless salad bar, burgers, wings, pulled pork egg rolls, sides including baked beans and three cheese macaroni and cheese, and desserts like homemade fruit cobbler and banana pudding round out the menu. So congratulations, Sonny’s, America voted and you’re its favorite barbecue chain!