The stereotypical image of a BBQ eatery is a thing of shabby beauty: a shack by the side of a country road, blue smoke curling from a brick chimney, and a gravel parking lot full of Chevy pick-up trucks and Ford Rancheros. Inside the place is cramped, the walls have hundreds of stapled-on business cards, the place smells of years of hickory, the waitress is in Sanforized cotton, and the pit cook has one gold tooth.
It’s a charming reverie with plenty of truth to it, and some of the greatest ‘cue places are of just such a stripe. The real reason so many barbecue places are out in the sticks is usually because a farmer was looking for a way to increase his income, as the late Tennessee Congressman Robin Beard once explained: “It usually started out with a farmer raising pigs, and when he had too many he’d pull out a few and put ‘em on a spit... first thing you know, he’d dig a pit, build a shack for the smoker, and start cooking them by the batch, as the side business.”
But contrary to popular belief, you don’t really need the great rural outdoors to make good barbecue. The genre itself has as many big city variants as there are sauce recipes in North Carolina. Barbecue is not difficult to make but it takes a tremendous amount of sheer attention and ardent devotion to make it well, with hours and hours of smoking and turning and tending. The technology has improved, but, as Greg Johnson and Vince Staten state in their seminal book Real Barbecue (1988), “A fellow could smoke a lot of brisket in a missile silo if he left the lid shut.”
Barbecue has therefore moved upscale, despite traditionalists’ insistence that you can’t make good barbecue in an urban environment (which is why you find some of the best city barbecue on the outskirts of town, where the smoke can blow free). Indeed, city environmental ordinances make it very tough on entrepreneurs who want to run a smoke stack up a building, as when Danny Meyer, a St. Louis kid who made a great success in the Big Apple with deluxe restaurants like Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park, wanted to open the barbecue place called in 2002 (see below). Negotiations and architectural revisions took months before the project got the green light.
It is interesting to note, therefore, that many city ‘cue stores trade on country mythology, so that you might find “Kentucky-style BBQ” in a city like Boston or “Real Texas Barbecue” in L.A. Urban barbecue joints were largely pioneered and are still run by African-Americans—legendary places like Gates Bar.B.Q., opened in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1946, and Sylvia’s soul food restaurant, opened in Harlem in 1962 by Sylvia and Herbert Woods.
What brought barbecue upscale was its acceptance in the 1970s and 1980s as America’s quintessential and indigenous contribution to world gastronomy. , for example, began its life as a pit and a few wooden tables in the Gibson family homestead outside of Decatur, Georgia. Today it boasts several modern locations—the latest one in Monroe, North Carolina. started in 1983 with three bikers, a 55-gallon drum cut in half and a dream. These days it's set within the splendid confines of the former Lehigh Valley Train Station in Rochester, New York.
As barbecue became a subject of bragging rights among both rural and urban aficionados, so it was only a matter of time before ‘cue places got a bit fancier and a lot less scruffy. Hence, in August, Georgia now serves a "T-Loin Plate" that bills itself as "96% Fat Free, Low Sodium, Low Cholesterol"—but no one's forcing you to order it. At in Houston, the Brazos Pecan Pie and desserts are housemade (not a given in most ‘cue stands, where Moon Pies and Goo Goo Clusters fill in), and the signature t-shirts, hats, mugs, and memorabilia make Goode Co. as much a gift shop as it is the best barbecue in town. And the venerable in Dallas (circa 1958) moved to some decidedly swankier new surroundings—Macy’s in the Galleria.
But while the settings may have changed, the proof is still in the meat, in all its smoky, charred, succulent glory. You’re still going to need a bib to eat it.