America's 25 Best Barbecue Chains for 2016
April 27, 2016
These chains have figured out the formula for great barbecue
America 's 25 Best BBQ Chains
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.
#25 Dickey’s BBQ Pit
With more than 470 locations across the country, 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 Dreamland Bar-B-Que
This Alabama chain has seven 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.
#23 Full Moon BBQ
For over 30 years, this barbecue chain — which grew out of a single restaurant opened in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1981 by an assistant football coach for the Alabama Crimson Tide — has been smoking its meats the traditional way: slowly, over a hickory wood-fired pit and spiced with its award-winning barbecue sauce. Known as the "Best Little Pork House in Alabama," this joint has 12 locations throughout the state. Full Moon features its famed hickory-smoked pork, pulled chicken, turkey, Black Angus beef brisket, pork links, and its famous baby back ribs and spareribs. The menu is huge and offers a selection of stuffed potatoes like the Big Baker, which includes pork, cheese, butter, and sour cream; salads; and a sweet list of desserts, including its popular Half Moon cookies, made from scratch and filled with chocolate and pecans, and hand-dipped in chocolate sauce.
#22 Bill Miller BBQ
This barbecue chain began in San Antonio in 1950 as a simple poultry and egg business, which evolved into a full-blown barbecue chain that currently has 73 locations throughout Texas. With pit-smoked meats that include beef brisket, sausage links, chicken, pork spare ribs, ham, and turkey, this chain offers large barbecue plates, and a variety of combo meals. The menu also features fried chicken and several classic sides. For those starting the day early, Bill Miller's features a morning menu complete with breakfast tacos, biscuits, and griddle cakes.
#21 Whole Hog Café
Whole Hog has 14 locations in Arkansas, Missouri, New Jersey, and New Mexico. The first outpost was launched in Little Rock, AR in 2000, and since then it has received acclaim from the barbecue-loving community. Whole Hog Café features award-winning meats that won top honors at the Memphis-In-May World Barbecue Championship in 2000, 2002, and 2008. It also offers seven types of barbecue sauce to accompany its juicy pulled pork, tender beef brisket, smoked chicken, and award-winning ribs.
#20 The County Line
The County Line's original location opened its doors in 1975 in Austin. Priding itself on serving generous portions of barbecue at affordable prices, it currently has nine locations throughout Texas and New Mexico. Its smoked meat platters include peppered turkey, sausage, chicken, lean brisket, and the rib king platter. This chain features all-you-can-eat family-style options of barbecue, as well as, traditional sides such as cole slaw, potato salad, and beans.
#19 Pappas Bar-B-Q
The Pappas barbecue empire began in 1976, and today the chain has 18 popular locations throughout Texas. Barbecue specials include the mixed platter of beef, ham, sausage, ribs, and pulled pork, as well as a variety of chicken combos and meaty rib platters. Classic sides include jalapeño cheese bread, sweet yams, and mac and cheese. Those not interested in barbecue (shocking, I know) can choose from a selection of po’boys and loaded baked potatoes such as the chicken potato with cheese, bacon, butter, sour cream, and chives.
#18 Sonny Bryan's
The original Inwood Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse location was founded by William Jennings Bryan Jr. (Sonny) and has been serving patrons since 1958. Today, Sonny's runs seven locations throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. With old school décor and an atmosphere that will make you nostalgic, this smokehouse offers classic Texas barbecue favorites that include ribs, brisket chopped or sliced, jalapeño sausage, pulled pork, pulled chicken, ham, and turkey. Hearty, homemade sides include coleslaw, potato salad and green bean casserole. Also noteworthy are Sonny's “world famous” giant onion rings and award-winning Frito pie.
#17 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 10 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. Beef brisket is also available.
#16 Montgomery Inn
Dubbed “the King and Queen of ribs,” Ted and Matula Gregory opened up their first shop, in the Cincinnati suburb of Montgomery, in 1951. With a secret barbecue sauce recipe that includes California tomatoes and a special blend of all-natural spices, their ribs have been enjoyed by a host of celebrities, including every president since Gerald Ford. The most famous offering here is the choice pork loin back ribs doused in special sauce, hand-spiced and slow-roasted daily, then finished off in its custom broiler. Other choices include a beef briskest that's slow-smoked over hickory logs for over 12 hours until tender, and juicy pulled barbecue chicken. There are three locations in Ohio and one in Kentucky, and patrons can also purchase the Inn's sauces and meats online or in-store.
#15 Goode Company
Since opening its doors in 1977, the family-owned-and-operated Goode Company BBQ has stuck to the same, time-tested, homemade, and mesquite-smoked barbecuing techniques it began with. With three locations throughout Texas, meats are offered by the pound and include jalapeño pork sausage, sweetwater duck, honey-smoked ham, beef brisket, and chicken. In addition, the Goode Company serves a variety of po’boys, combo plates, as well as traditional sides like baked beans.
#14 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 house-made 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.
#13 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.
#12 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 10 locations 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.
#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 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 health care 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.
#9 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.
#8 Lucille's Smokehouse
Founder Craig Hofman opened the first Lucille's in Long Beach, California, in 1999. Though Southern California isn't particularly known for its barbecue, Hofman got his inspiration from the Southern states during his personal BBQ tour of the best 'cue joints America has to offer. Offerings include slow-smoked baby back ribs, spare ribs, hot links, beef ribs, brisket, chicken, and BBQ tri tip, each of which comes with your choice of two classic sides. With 22 Lucille's locations in California, Arizona, and Nevada, Hofman ensures that his barbecue is always served with the “finest Southern hospitality” around.
#7 Joe's Kansas City (Formerly Oklahoma Joe's)
Dubbed America's best ribs by our recent ranking, Joe’s Kansas City in Kansas City, Kansas offers melt-in-your-mouth, smoky, and tender barbecue. This chain began in 1995 in none other, than a corner gas station. Since then, Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que has opened two more eateries and has been the Zagat #1 Rated barbecue in Kansas City every from 2004-2013. The large menu offers the house specialty pulled pork, smoked turkey and ham, beef brisket, ribs, and bbq sausage. If you come in during lunch on Monday or Saturday, or at dinner on Wednesday, you may be lucky enough to indulge on its much sought after burnt ends (if it's not sold out). Oklahoma Joe's also features chicken gumbo and a variety of sides on the menu, such as dirty rice and bbq beans.
#6 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.
#5 Red Hot & Blue
Founded 26 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; house-made sausages are smoked and grilled; and, thankfully, sampler platters are available so you can try a little bit of everything.
#4 Rudy’s Bar-B-Q
Rudy’s has over 30 locations in Texas and more spread throughout Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma. 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.
#3 Corky’s BBQ
Hickory-smoked ribs are the claim to fame at Corky’s, a 32-year-old Memphis institution that boasts six 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!
#2 Gates BBQ
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 eight states. 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!