Smoky, Savory, and Saucey: Nashville's Best Barbecue Joints



Nashville's not Memphis. We don't have barbecue running through our veins. When you cut us, we don't bleed barbecue sauce. But we are Southern. And we have taste buds. So just because we don't have a signature barbecue style, doesn't mean we don't have plenty of smoked meats from which to choose. In fact, it might even be better here in Music City. You can choose from Texas-style brisket or Memphis-style pork. From spicy or vinegary or sweet or even white sauce on pork, turkey, beef, and even vegetables. 

It used to be that all barbecue joints were dives. And certainly, there's something kind of authentic about a barbecue place that makes you feel like you're in someone's backyard, the smoker making the whole neighborhood (and your clothes and your hair) smell good. But increasingly, barbecue places are morphing into traditional restaurants with full bars, real flatware, plates, and glasses. Plan a visit long enough to try them all. Just bring extra napkins.



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Nashville's only a few hours drive from Memphis, the home of pork barbecue, and at Jack's they're giving Elvis' hometown a run for their money. Award winning and finger-lickin', Jack's doesn't shy from sharing the secret to their success: After applying our dry rub (spices and herbs), meat is smoked for 18 hours at 250 degrees. "Pit to plate" we sliced and chopped before serving, you will notice a pink smoke ring. That's the real signature of hickory smoked barbecue. Jack's has a location on Trinity Lane (where the smoking is done), but it is the one on Lower Broad that satisfies downtown crowds.


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You want history? Bar-B-Cutie dates from 1950 and was one of the city's first drive-in barbecue joints. Still serving terrific pork after all these years, the restaurant has become an object of civic pride. After all, with a name like that how can you possibly resist? You can't. Bar-B-Cutie is known for being a reliable fast food stop, with many locations around town (and in the suburbs). Most stops have a drive-thru as well as catering, and the turkeys are favorites at Thanksgiving. There's a decent cross-section of barbecue sauces, so you can get whatever makes smoked meats taste best to you.


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The first thing one will notice about the Peg Leg Porker barbecue restaurant is its name, which derived from owner Carey Bringle, who survived an aggressive form of bone cancer that took his right leg. This experience caused Bringle to change his world outlook and seize every opportunity that he could. Having competed in many BBQ competitions in his life, he opened up Peg Leg Porker under the motto "Limpin' ain't easy." Of course, the restaurant has taken off because of the food, not the story. Bringle has cooked at the James Beard House and helps raise funds for pediatric cancer research.


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Hog Heaven


 

In a shabby white shack behind McDonald's and facing Centennial Park, you'll find a great little barbecue joint. It is so unassuming you may pass by it. Don't! Make a u-turn! Because this is one of the barbecue places you don't want to miss, particularly if you are looking for non-pork options. Unlike many Tennessee barbecue places, Hog Heaven offers not only pork, chicken, and ribs but also beef brisket and turkey, as well as a vegetable plate. To see what the place is all about, try a pulled pork plate with cornbread, black-eyed peas, turnip greens, and a barbecue pickle spear, followed by homemade peach or blackberry cobbler.


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12th Avenue South
Edley's Bar-B-Que
Photo courtesy of Daniel Howard


 

Edley's came to the 12 South neighborhood in 2012, and it was so popular that the restaurant opened a second location within a few years. The patio faces 12 South and wraps around to a side street where patrons can sit and watch car, bike, and foot traffic pass. The feel of the place is great: With slabs of wood making up the walls, rustic wooden tables, and garage doors that bring fresh air through the entire restaurant, it's the perfect place for southern fare. Brisket is typically on the menu only at lunch...unless, for some odd reason, it hasn'yt sold out by dinner. Speaking of southern fare, Edley's has an extensive menu of barbecue and traditional southern sides. Order the macaroni and cheese...you'll be sorry.


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Sylvan Park


 

The south is known for its unique cuisine and its strict adherence to the concept that the quality of the food is far more important than how fast you can make it. The Slow & Low BBQ Bistro is clearly fond of that idea. As the name suggests, they slow cook their ribs and barbecue to perfection. Their menu is also rife with all of the southern dishes one could ask for: wings, fried chicken, burgers, and potato salad. Slow & Low also now offers catering in addition to their sit-down and takeout options. There's also a location in suburban Hendersonville.


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Swett's Restaurant


 

Swett's began as a tavern in 1920, but turned to the meat-and-three scene in 1954. The family-owned business is proud of the diversity of its clientele. Recipes at Swett's are never written down, ensuring a different experience every time you visit. The cooks put their heart and soul into this food, and the popularity of their dishes attest to the care and attention paid to the items. A second location at the Nashville Airport serves as a delicious way to be welcomes to the city, as well as a tasty sendoff for those leaving the land of meat and threes for a while. While Swett's is best known as a cafeteria-style meat-and-three, In 2012 Swett's added barbecue to its offerings. The barbecue line is in a separate corner of the restaurant than the meat-and-three.


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Shotgun Willie's

 

Three pitmasters have come together to roll out the one thing they thought Nashville's barbecue scene was missing: Texas-style brisket. They launched Shotgun Willie's BBQ, a food truck that specializes in just that. The brisket is so tender it can be pulled apart with a plastic fork while standing while eating (something you oft do from a food truck). It is the slow-cooking that does it: The meat is smoked and seasoned just with salt and pepper. The restaurant also has beef sausage on the menu. Eventually the team plans to have a brick-and-mortar location, possibly in East Nashville, but for now you can find the truck at street fairs, breweries and other locations listed on their social media pages and their website.


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B&C Melrose BBQ, also known as Bacon & Caviar, is a gourmet barbecue and catering service located just south of downtown Nashville. Their menu changes with the seasons as they buy as many locally grown ingredients as possible. The staff are friendly and excel in making some of the finest southern food in all of Nashville, and their catering spares no expense in offering fantastic buffet-style dinners. The second location inside the Nashville Farmers Market is popular at lunch, when downtown workers and tourists alike line up for some delicious barbecue. B&C is one of the few places in town where vinegar-based sauces rule.


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Once featured on Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives" program, Martin's BBQ Joint is now one of the prime venues in the Nashville area's restaurant scene. This Nashville staple may no longer be a dive, but it still carries with it a down-to-earth sensibility and a sense of joy, not to mention a healthy sense of human. Martin's BBQ Joint even caters with a sense of humor, stating that their whole hog catering is "perfect for vegan Bat Mitzvahs". A little bit of southern charm mixed with a whole lot of pork make this joint one to put on your list. Several area locations (including on downtown 4th Avenue South and Belmont Avenue near the campuses) make it easy to find Martin's wherever you are.


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Meet Margaret Littman

Journalist Margaret Littman is a both a relative newcomer to Nashville as well as an old-timer, having returned to what once was her college town as an adult. 

She is the author of many...  More About Margaret

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