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, North Carolina is about whole hog, 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 is universal and impossible 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 — people can spend their whole lives seeking America’s best barbecue spots and still feel like they’ve only scratched the surface. But we've ranked a different kind of barbecue restaurant: the chain — which can mean anything from a handful of places clustered around the same city to a large-scale operation covering many states.
Chains tend to get a bad rap, because (for the most part) they rely on production lines and cost-cutting measures to deliver food that’s as inexpensive and quickly-made as it is completely unremarkable. But when it comes to barbecue, there’s really no way to cut corners. Because if you cut corners with barbecue — by using low-grade meat, for example, or employing artificial means to give it smoky flavor — people will know. And not only will they know, they’ll get angry. You can mess around with burgers or pizza, but you can’t mess around with 'cue.
All the owners of the restaurants on our list are well aware of this fact, and it comes through in the food they serve. In order to assemble our ranking, we created a survey with nearly 70 barbecue joints with more than two locations and asked the public to weigh in and vote for their favorites. And more than 3,200 of you did.
Choosing a favorite type of barbecue is a subjective matter, but we can all agree that when done right, there are few foods on Earth that are more delicious. So loosen your belt and read on to learn which 25 barbecue chains are America’s best.
Annie N/ Yelp
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 75 locations throughout Texas with five more in the works (the street that the original location is on has been renamed Bill Miller Lane). 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.
Since opening its doors in 1977, the family-owned-and-operated Goode Company has stuck to the same time-tested, homemade, and mesquite-smoked barbecuing techniques it began with. At three Houston locations and one in Six Pines, meats are offered by the pound and include jalapeño pork sausage, sweetwater duck, honey-smoked ham, beef brisket, and chicken. In addition, Goode Company serves a variety of po’boys and combo plates, as well as traditional sides like baked beans. Its online store is also quite popular; make sure you order one if its legendary pecan pies.
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 eight locations and long waits nearly 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-and-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.
Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que/Yelp
A barbecue chain in Texas is held to a higher standard than in the rest of country — Texans, proud of their meats and their barbecue, are tough to impress. This 56-year-old family-owned chain — based in Llano with additional locations in Fort Worth, Austin, and New Braunfels — has such a following that the owners have developed a healthy mail-order business as well. Meats are hot-smoked “cowboy-style” over smoldering mesquite embers, and the usual ribs and brisket are joined on the menu by harder-to-find cabrito (baby goat), jerky, ribeye, pork loin, prime rib, and sirloin. No visit is complete, however, without ordering Cooper’s signature Big Chop, a huge pork chop seared over a hot fire then slow-roasted for an hour over the coals; it’s such a masterpiece that even in beef-centric Texas it accounts for about 20 percent of Cooper’s sales.
A Minnesota-based chain might strike some as a surprising place to find great barbecue, but pitmaster Dave Anderson really knows his stuff. Since starting the company in 1994, he’s opened more than 200 locations and has become 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 in a bottle.
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 chile stew, but that’s the way it should be. Rudy’s will ship its meats, rubs, and famous “sause” nationwide.
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. Don’t miss the homemade pies, which are — dare we say — bodacious.
Not surprisingly, this Northeast-based chain with locations in 14 states that opened its doors on September 11, 2011, is very patriotic, and supports nonprofits that focus on veterans and law enforcement as well as taking a special interest in hiring veterans. It also takes its barbecue very, very seriously: The two owners traveled across the country to barbecue destinations including Kansas City, North and South Carolina, St. Louis, and Texas in the name of research, and their menu boasts the best of all worlds, from Hill Country-style brisket and sausage to Carolina-style pulled pork to St. Louis-style spare ribs.
Soulman’s is one of Texas’ most beloved barbecue chains, with 19 locations primarily clustered around the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Founded in Pleasant Grove in 1974 by the husband-and-wife team of Don and Teresa Hallet and still family-run, the company can thank its use of old Hallet family recipes for its success. Its ribs are the true claim to fame, but its beef brisket, pulled pork, sausage, hot links, chicken, and ham are all smoked low and slow over hickory wood, and certainly hold their own whether served au naturel, in a sandwich, or with beans, cheese, and Fritos in a “Soul Bowl.” Stuffed baked potatoes, house-smoked beans, creamed corn, mac and cheese, spicy potatoes, mashed potatoes and gravy, potato salad, and stellar pecan or buttermilk pie round out the menu.
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 barbecue experience, just as the chain has done since Lou Bono opened the first location in 1949. There are 20 locations throughout the country (most are in Florida, but there’s also one in Denver), but that Southern hospitality is present at every outpost. Pork, brisket, turkey, sausage, chicken, St. Louis ribs, 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 (barbecue pork topped with Cheddar and a sausage link), Bird Dog (smoked turkey topped with sausage), and their classic BBQ Po-Boy — they’re pretty outrageous. 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.
Hickory-smoked ribs are the claim to fame at Corky’s, a 34-year-old Memphis institution that boasts six Memphis-area locations, two in Little Rock, one near Nashville, and one in Pigeon Forge. 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!
Woody’s got its start in Jacksonville, Florida, more than 30 years ago, and today there are 24 franchised locations in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and New York, with another opening soon in 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.
For more than 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 always smoked its meats the traditional way: slowly, over a hickory wood-fired pit and spiced with its award-winning rub and barbecue sauce. Calling itself the "Best Little Pork House in Alabama," this joint has 14 locations throughout the state, with a 15th opening this fall. 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, filled with chocolate and pecans, and hand-dipped in chocolate sauce.
Dickey's Barbecue Pit/Yelp
Founded in Dallas by Travis Dickey in 1941, Dickey’s today has more than 560 locations nationwide, making it the world’s largest barbecue chain. 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 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.
This Alabama chain has 10 locations throughout the state (as well as stalls at nearly every major stadium there), but Dreamland got its start in Tuscaloosa in 1958, rising to fame thanks to its hickory-smoked ribs and sauce devised 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.
Joe’s Kansas City, with its original location on the Kansas side of the city, offers smoky, tender, melt-in-your-mouth barbecue. This chain began as Oklahoma Joe’s in 1995 in none other than a corner gas station. Since then, it’s opened two more eateries and has achieved a level of renown in the city. The large menu offers smoked turkey and ham, beef brisket, ribs, barbecue sausage, and the house specialty, pulled pork. If you come in during lunch on Monday or Saturday, or at dinner on Wednesday, you may be lucky enough to indulge in Joe’s sought-after burnt ends (if you get there before the dish sells out). The menu also features chicken gumbo and a variety of sides, such as dirty rice and barbecue beans.
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 Stack is classic Kansas City barbecue 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, racks 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.
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, all throughout the day and night. 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.
Jim’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q/Yelp
If you’re going to open a chain of barbecue restaurants in the Carolinas, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, and Colorado, you had 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 39 locations (with two 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 smoke 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 of which are served with a big dose of Southern hospitality. They also offer a killer hickory-grilled burger and pimiento cheese sandwich, but honestly, you’re going to want to reserve all the room in your stomach for this crazy-good barbecue.
Shane’s Rib Shack/Yelp
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. Between 2004 and 2008 it grew from two locations to a whopping 85. While there are now 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 Shane’s overwhelming success is the meat: The barbecue pork is hand-carved, and the baby back ribs are tender and juicy. Beef brisket is also available.
City Barbeque was founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 1999 by competition pitmaster Rick Malir, and today this award-winning barbecue can be found at 35 locations in seven states (with seven additional ones in the works). Eighteen-hour-smoked brisket, two types of pulled pork, turkey breast, pulled chicken with Alabama white sauce, and smoked sausage take inspiration from several different regional styles, and sides include mac and cheese, corn pudding, collards with pork, and gumbo. All meats are smoked in-house and all sides are scratch-made according to exacting specifications.
Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse-The West End/Yelp
The original Dallas Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse location was founded by William Jennings “Sonny” Bryan Jr. (no relation to the famed orator) and has been serving patrons since 1958. Today, Sonny's runs five 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.
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 institution, 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.
Sonny’s has been serving real-deal Southern-style barbecue for 50 years. The barbecue joint got its start in Gainesville, Florida, where Sonny Tillman and his wife Lucille opened the first location 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.
4 Rivers is the brainchild of Florida barbecue master John Rivers, and 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, and the end result is some first-class barbecue. The smoker at each of the 14 Florida locations 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; it’s easily one of the best sandwiches in the state.
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