No one does pork barbecue like Memphis, Tennessee. I know Kansas City and North Carolina both have their die-hard fans, but Memphis has got to be the barbecue capital of the world. What other city has as many restaurants solely devoted to the cuisine? At any given time, Memphis has over 100 barbecue restaurants. Many of them have been perfecting their ‘cue for decades!
Memphis Barbecue Information
For history and foodie lovers, I can’t recommend the following book enough:
Joe and I read this book from cover to cover on our last road trip. It starts with the origins of barbecue and continues with the history of Memphis area BBQ, from Leonard’s and other stalwarts in the 1920’s to present day. For those of you from the Memphis area, it will give you the back story of your favorite barbecue joints. If you’re not from “these parts”, it will make you want to plan a road trip ASAP!
Now, let it be known that REAL barbecue isn’t throwing meat on a grill. I didn’t even realize that people called grilling hotdogs and hamburgers “barbecue” until my northern relatives invited me to their backyard barbecue. I was sadly disappointed. Mind you, the burgers and hotdogs were great, but as a southern girl raised on brisket, ribs, and pork shoulder, a hot dog was not what I was expecting.
True southern barbecue is cooked low and slow!
True barbecue is cooked low and slow, usually at around 250 degrees fahrenheit using indirect heat. It can be called barbecue, barbeque, ‘que, BBQ, bar-b-q, or any other spelling combinations. For Memphis, it means pork with a combination of molasses, tomato, and vinegar for sauce. The ‘cue is served wet or dry, meaning after the smoking process sauce or a dry rub is applied. Pulled pork and ribs are the most popular offerings. While some will try brisket (leave that offering for Texas) or chicken, most restaurants in Memphis stick to pork. Memphis knows that animal from top to bottom! The most commonly offered sides include coleslaw, baked beans, and potato salad.
While working on this post the last couple of months, we had several recurring questions from our friends and family:
Why did you decide to review all of these Memphis barbecue joints?
Last spring, we completed a Texas barbecue road trip (see Texas Barbecue Road Trip) which totally immersed us in all things beef barbecue. While eating at Rendezvous this summer, Joe and I decided we wanted to see how it compared to other highly rated Memphis barbecue restaurants.
Which was your favorite barbecue restaurant?
This would be an impossible task. For one thing, we only made a dent in all of the top rated restaurants. Some, we just couldn’t seem to get to before they closed (Payne’s), and some given a different day, would probably have inched out others. Real pit barbecue is hard to maintain consistency. On any given day, the weather, cook, and our taste buds can change.
I’m sure we didn’t try every restaurants’ “best” dish. For comparison purposes, we tried to stick with ribs and pulled pork, and for sides we mainly stuck with the traditional coleslaw and potato salad.
However, there were some restaurants that everything we tried was delicious and what to fill up on was a hard decision to make. The restaurants where we loved everything we sampled included: Blues City Cafe, Central, Corky’s, and Leonards. Overall, there wasn’t a single restaurant that disappointed. It’s in alphabetical order, so you can easily see if your favorite Memphis BBQ joint was one of the ones we reviewed.
We rated each restaurant on a scale of 1-5 ?.
? Don’t waste your time
?? Hit or miss
??? You’ll have a good meal
???? We had excellent pork barbecue
????? You’ve arrived in pork barbecue heaven
How did you keep from gaining 20 pounds?
Well, for one thing, we mainly ordered one combo platter to share. When that wasn’t an option, we only ate enough to get our fill, then took the rest home for leftovers. Bread was skipped (except for Leonard’s hot good golly delicious goodness rolls!). When not eating barbecue, we ate mainly salads and protein shakes.
Why 20 barbecue joints?
There had to be a limit or we would have a novel instead of a blog post. We used Facebook recommendations, TripAdvisor, Top10, Thrillist, and Food Network’s Diner’s, Drive-ins, & Dives to help us gets started. And yes, there are some on the list that aren’t in the Memphis city limits. We figured, if we’ll drive 40 miles to get good barbecue located in downtown Memphis, those living in the heart of Memphis would make the trek for good ‘que too! There’s also more to Memphis cuisine than barbecue. Joe wants to do fried chicken/soul food next. I want to feast on hamburgers. Fried catfish is also on our list to review. Twenty seemed liked a good stopping point.
Aren’t you tired of eating barbecue?
No, as long as it is as good as what we’ve been eating, then I could eat it every day. Every barbecue restaurant had their own, unique spin on the Memphis classics making each a memorable experience.
The Ultimate Memphis Barbecue Guide
A & R Bar-B-Q ???
The A & R name was derived from the founder’s name, Andrew and his wife Rose. It opened in 1983 and has the slogan, “Anyone can put heat 2 the meat but only a few can Bar-B-Q.” I just love that!
We ate at the Hickory Hill location. Not the greatest area in Memphis, but most good BBQ isn’t in the touristy spots. While we were there, they were serving up mainly “to go” meals.
To be honest, the ribs were the toughest we ate on our 20 restaurant tour. They weren’t pre-sliced which normally wouldn’t be a problem had they been tender. Everything else however, was very tasty. The pork sandwich alone is worth a trip back. We had the coleslaw on the side, but then I put a little on top of my sandwich, and it gave the sandwich a perfect tangy crunch. We’re a big fan of fried, green tomatoes and order them whenever we can. A & R’s had a nice light batter. It looked like the same batter used or their catfish, which we’ll be back to try!
Definitely try: pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw on top
The Bar-B-Q Shop ???
The Bar-B-Que Shop recipes started out in Brady and Lil’s, one of the city’s first black-owned restaurants that grew a loyal following customers. It is located in Midtown, which is worth a visit in itself (see 24 Hours in Memphis-Outside Downtown). Just a block down the street is the revitalized Overton Square, where you can shop and listen to some fantastic music.
The two dining rooms are roomy and clean. Although The Bar-B-Q Shop is known for their barbecue spaghetti, we stuck with our pulled pork and ribs. They didn’t offer a combo platter on their menu so we ordered two different plates. Our total (without tip) was $36.73, and we took a lot of food home with us! Although this wasn’t our favorite, it didn’t have any misses either. The chopped pork was tender, and I loved the tangy coleslaw. The ribs were tender enough to easily fall off the bone with about the best smoke flavor we had anywhere.
Definitely try: The ribs–cooked perfectly!
Blues City Cafe ????
Here is where my bias comes shining through. We just had to go to Blues City Cafe because that is where Joe and I had our first date!
Blues City Cafe isn’t usually mentioned with other famous Memphis barbecue joints. However, its ribs have been featured on the Travel Channel’s “Taste of America and Food Network’s “Bobby Flay Show”. Bon Appetit Magazine featured Blues City Cafe in their BBQ issue.
Blue City Cafe is on a prominent corner on Beale Street. As we ordered on our first date, we dined on the catfish and ribs, then worked off the calories with a night of people-watching and dancing!
We started with a cheese and sausage platter appetizer, a Memphis tradition. Then we split a ribs/catfish combo with coleslaw, baked beans, and fries. The ribs are hickory-smoked and basted with a maple barbecue sauce, tender with just the right amount of pull from the bone. Joe had a side order of turnip greens. I think he could had filled up on the greens alone!
Definitely try: the ribs and catfish, even on a first date!
Captain John’s Bar-B-Q ???
Captain John’s is located in Collierville, just about 20 minutes east of the Memphis city limits. It was originally opened as a Coleman’s in 1974. Coleman’s was a Memphis chain of barbecue restaurants that expanded too quickly and left many a barbecue pit empty. The restaurant was taken over by Ron and Linda Johnson over 20 years ago. The name may have changed, but they kept the recipes that the customer base loved. They have loyal customers and staff, with some staff having worked at that location for over 25 years.
Captain John’s was one of the first barbecue restaurants we decided to review. It was located close to our home, and Joe was still recovering from a severe case of shingles that developed on our Europe trip this past summer. When we were there for lunch, it was a very mixed group of customers, from retirees, blue collar, businessmen on lunch breaks, and families. The building itself is a semi-dive, which is makes for hidden gems for good barbecue joints.
The staff couldn’t have been more friendly. One older gentleman was having a difficult time deciding what to order. Even though there was a line behind him, the cashier took her time, explaining the menu and helping him make a decision.
Joe had the loaded-baked potato, heavy on the potato, and light on the loaded. I ordered the lunch special, the pulled pork sandwich. It came with sauce and slaw on top. The pork was okay, just a bit dry for my taste. My order also came with onion rings and potato salad. I really liked the onion rings. The batter was light and not greasy. I also liked that the batter didn’t fall off the onion on the first bite as some are prone to do. The potato salad was some of the best we had anywhere, light mustard flavors with a little crunch.
Because Joe was feeling terrible, he also ordered the banana pudding (apparently it helps him forget his shingles). Oh my goodness gracious! It was so creamy and not overly sweet. It made me feel better, too!
Definitely try: the potato salad, especially if you like mustard-flavored
Central BBQ ????
Central has the distinguished honor of being on about every “top barbecue” list that we could find. The owners, Blondis and Sapp first competed in the barbecue circuit. In 2002, they combined their love of barbecue to open the first location near the University of Memphis on Central Avenue. They named it “Central” because of the street name and Memphis’s location in the middle of barbecue country.
Their barbecue isn’t served with any sauce. Their philosophy is that good barbecue should be able to stand on the flavor of the meat alone. There are four sauces you can add if you so desire. We sampled all four, but our favorite is also the restaurant’s most popular, a molasses and brown sugar base. This is one of the places that is always good, and everything we have ever eaten there is packed full of flavor.
At the Central Avenue location, there is almost always a line, but it moves quickly and efficiently. We only had to wait about ten minutes. The inside seating is limited, but the outdoor, covered-patio is spacious. If there is one place I always recommend to visitors, it’s Central Bar-B-Q!
Definitely try: the ribs, some of the best I’ve ever eaten
Corky’s Bar-B-Q ?????
Of all the famous Memphis barbecue restaurants, Corky’s is probably the most famous nationally. This is mainly due to its strong frozen food offerings in grocery stores and QVC offerings. When you are located close to the Fedex hub, you can also ship barbecue all of the world, a lot of times by the next day.
Corky’s is one of those Memphis institutions that when someone says, “We’re going to have Corky’s”, you know it’s going to be a good outing Started in 1984, Corky’s has kept consistent quality by taking care of its staff. Managers average stay with the restaurant is 20+ years and the regular staff averages 16 years.
Joe and I love Corky’s. In fact, Joe asked for Corky’s for his last birthday. We go there frequently, but on our last visit, I tried to be more critical since it was for the blog. Well, we loved it just as much as we normally do! We started with the famous barbecue nachos for an appetizer. At only $9.99, it comes loaded with pulled pork. It could easily be your whole meal! For our main entree, we split the rib/pulled pork combo. No sauce needed! With the meat, we had baked beans, cole slaw, and potato salad. All good!
The only thing that I think of that could use more attention were the rolls. We were skipping most of the bread offerings, but a little taste of the Corky’s rolls just reminded me of the rolls my mom use to buy from the grocery store. Nothing special about them, tasted pretty commercial.
Definitely try: We love pretty much everything at Corky’s, but the barbecue nachos are heaven on a plate!
Cousin’s Express ????
Cousin’s Express is a gas station/convenience store about 40 minutes east of the Memphis city limits. It’s not on any “favorite’s ” list. But when I asked my Facebook friends about good barbecue, Cousin’s was recommended repeatedly. The first time we tried it was while Joe was recovering from his shingles ordeal. When he was finally up for an outing, we decided to give it a shot.
When I saw the lunchtime line in front of the counter, I knew that was a good sign.
Even though it looked like most customers were getting “to-go” orders, there were some tables available, so Joe and I ate there. I ordered the pulled pork sandwich. It was too dry for me, so I fixed it up with some sauce (which had a wonderful flavor). The slaw that came with it was very tasty, not too heavy with mayonnaise with just a bite of vinegar. The baked beans had a nice deep sweet molasses flavor with strips of pulled pork in it.
Joe had the ribs. They needed no sauce whatsoever! The meat was super tender with just a hint of smokey-flavor. We have since been back for more ribs. FYI- Cousins have pizza too, which is excellent!
Definitely try: the pork ribs
Cozy Corner ???
Cozy Corner a beloved Memphis institution. It is so loved that when they had a fire last year, Memphis loyal customers raised money to help it reopen.
It is currently relocated across the street, inside an old cafe. Although the area isn’t the nicest around, the customers ranged from a young family, doctors from the nearby St. Jude’s, and young teenagers running in to get “to-go” orders.
The staff couldn’t have been friendlier. I usually get a few stares when I pull out my camera, this was not the case at all at Cozy Corner. We were treated like family even though we were first-time customers.
Joe had the barbecue nachos. They did not skimp on the cheese and pulled pork. In fact, he could have used more chips. He ended using a fork to scrape up every last morsel. The ribs I ordered were served wet, almost too “fall off the bone” for my taste, but that didn’t stop me from eating it all! The best thing on my plate was the coleslaw. It had the perfect vinegar tang to compliment the sweet, spicy barbecue. Our total for the rib dinner, nachos and three drinks was $24.50 including tax. Very good value!
Definitely try: the slaw! I could have eaten a bucket of it.
Elwood’s Shack ????
Elwood’s is a favorite on many lists: brunch, tacos, pizza, and hamburgers. It’s a little hard to find (behind another store, next to a Lowe’s parking lot), and clearly a dive. Elwood’s is only 3 years old, and it already has a loyal following.
Joe and I split a ribs/pulled pork combo. Both meats were tender with no sauce needed. I added some tangy sauce to mine to make it just right. My favorite was the mustard tanged potato salad with chunky potatoes, great seasoning with just the right amount of crunch.
Definitely try: the potato salad
The Germantown Commissary ???
The Germantown Commissary started out as a grocery store, with a building dating back to the late 1800s. The grocery store then started a lunch counter servicing construction workers. The staples were bologna, barbecue, and deviled eggs.
In 1981, the country grocery was converted into a sit-down restaurant. Each barbecue meal still comes with a deviled egg in homage to its country store roots.
We started with the barbecue nachos. Always a good go-to, the nachos could have filled both of us up. We split a 3-meat combo. The pulled pork and sausage were cooked perfectly. The ribs however, were dry and tough.
What is always a party/potluck favorite is the Commissary’s potato salad. They are known across Memphis for some of the best potato salad in the county!
Definitely try: the bbq nachos and potato salad
George’s BBQ ???
George’s is the newest restaurant on our list. George’s prides itself in having “fresh” barbecue, every day. It closes early, 6 p.m. so if you’re going to go, it’s easier to catch it for lunch.
Unlike almost all of the other barbecue joints we visited, George’s looks very modern and spacious on the inside.
We started with the barbecue nachos for an appetizer, and they were a huge portion. I really liked the nachos, but Joe thought the cheese got hard way too fast. More for me!
For our main course, Joe had the ribs. They are served dry with different a variety of sauces to choose from. The ribs were perfectly tender. You could easily pull the meat apart. I had the pulled pork. It didn’t have enough texture for my taste, too mushy. I like a good combinations of bark mixed with the pork. Joe said I was crazy and ate all of mine.
Neither of us were fans of the sides, although I have several co-workers that swear by them. The coleslaw is very spicy. I like to coleslaw to counter the spiciness of the barbecue. There was nothing to cool down my palate. The potato salad had a strange combination of spices. We couldn’t figure it out. For one thing, it had an off-putting orange tint to it. I like mustard-based potato salad or mayonnaise -based. This potato salad left my taste buds confused. Then again, several co-workers told me they thought it was the best potato salad they had ever eaten.
Definitely try: the ribs
Couldn’t find a website.
Interstate Bar-B-Q ???
Interstate Bar-B-Q is a Memphis staple. Jim Neely opened the restaurant on a seedy block in Memphis. Stories of him cleaning up the block and scaring away the drug dealers are not exaggerations. Made famous from his nephew’s show, “The Neely’s” on the Food Network, Interstate barbecue has a devoted following.
People had told us that we had to try Interstate’s barbecue spaghetti. Joe described it perfectly when he said, “It tastes mushy like a BBQ flavored Chef Boyardee.” After that statement, that’s all I could taste. We weren’t a fan of the ribs either. As you can see, they were served swimming in sauce. We both really liked the pulled pork. It had a mild smokey flavor and had a good mix of meat and bark. Oh and the sausage link was good, too!
Definitely try: the pulled pork
Leonard’s Pit Barbecue ?????
Leonard’s is credited as the oldest, original pit barbecue restaurant in Memphis. In 1922, Leonard Heuberger opened a five-stool lunch counter called “Leonard’s Lunch”. His 5 cent barbecue sandwiches were a hit. The current owner, Dan Brown, started working at Leonard’s when he was just fifteen.
Leonard’s, along with Blue City Cafe, Central, Corky’s all gave us a “loved everything” meal. This was one place where we actually ate the bread. The yeast rolls were so buttery, they didn’t need anything on them. Our server recommended the onion rings, and she was right on the money. They were some of the best onion rings I’ve ever eaten. We split the ribs and BBQ combo which came with beans and slaw for $12.50. I also ordered a side of potato salad. We hadn’t eaten at Leonard’s before, but we’ll be back. The staff was super friendly and the food was fantastic. I had a hard time putting my fork down!
I’m not a big fan of buffets, but I might have to go back to Leonard’s lunch buffet. Sunday-Friday ($12-$14)
Definitely try: the rolls, even if you’re on a no-carb diet
Marlowe’s Ribs & Restaurant ???
Marlowe’s Ribs and Restaurant might not have given us the best barbecue in Memphis, but we had the best time eating there. Located just a mile south of Graceland, you can get a free ride to the restaurant from Graceland-area hotels in Marlowe’s pink Cadillac.
The restaurant started in 1974 as the “Whitehaven Ranch House”, specializing in roast beef and a big self-serve salad bar. Time and time again, tourists would ask where they could go to get good Memphis barbecue. The owners realized that that’s where their focus should be. That’s when they added a pit barbecue building and started promoting themselves to tourist as the place to get ribs.
When we were there, the restaurant was totally decked out for Halloween. Our server told us that they go all out for every holiday. The walls are completely covered with Elvis memorabilia. So much so that with all of the Halloween decorations, there wasn’t much wall space that wasn’t covered up. Along with the memorabilia, there are television monitors throughout playing Elvis movies, along with continuous Elvis music!
I really wasn’t expecting much for food, but it exceeded my expectations. We had a sampler platter for an appetizer. Think fried, fried, and fried. Fried chicken (very juicy), fried green tomatoes, and fried corn nuggets. None of it was greasy or too heavy. We split the 3 meat combo. Again, Memphis shouldn’t try to make brisket. Let Texas do it, because it was way too dry. The ribs were good, but I would have preferred them dry, with sauce on the side. Pulled pork was nicely favored with just a hint of smoke.
Overall, it was a fun experience, and we’ll go back.
Definitely try: the ribs
Memphis Barbecue Company ???
The Memphis Barbecue Company started from the partnership of two championship barbecue competitors. It opened in 2011 in Horn Lake, Mississippi, just about 30 minutes south of Memphis. Although our server told us that everyone loves the ribs, they were not our favorite, a bit dry. However, the fried green tomatoes were superb! Some of the best I’ve ever had. Plated underneath the ribs was some champion-flavored pulled pork.
I don’t think I would make the drive again just to eat here, but if we were already in Horn Lake, we would probably try it again.
Definitely try: fried green tomatoes
One and Only BBQ ???
The One and Only BBQ has two locations. We tried the Perkins Ext. location. It is a small little place with limited seating and lots of carry-out traffic.
We started with the barbecue nachos that were dripping with cheese and just the right amount of pork barbecue.
For our main meal, we split the rib/pork dinner. The pork was shredded instead of chopped or pulled, which is traditional. I thought the pork was way too dry, even when I added sauce. After a couple of bites, I gave the rest to Joe to eat. The ribs were my favorite. Dry rubbed, with just the right amount of pull when you bite into it. I like my ribs to be tender, but not completely falling off of the bone. No sauce needed, but what I added had a nice tangy, sweetness to it.
Definitely try: get yourself some NACHOS!
Rendezvous is a legend. When the directions to a restaurant include, go down an alley, then walk down the stairs to the basement, you know it’s going to be a fun atmosphere. People come to Memphis just to eat at Rendezvous, then go across the block to check a minor league Redbirds game. The two are so connected that the Redbirds serves Rendezvous’s barbecue nachos and sausage & cheese plates.
Rendezvous was a beer and sandwich shop until Greek immigrant owner Charles Vergos converted an old charcoal chute into a barbecue pit in 1964. He famously created a Greek seasoning rub, and the Memphis barbecue scene was changed forever.
People in Memphis either love Rendezvous or hate it. There’s really no in-between. Their ribs aren’t true Memphis barbecue because they are only cooked one hour instead of the tradition 4+. They are charcoal ribs. That’s all they have ever claimed to be. You don’t have a super tenderness that you’ll find most Memphis barbecue restaurants.
Customers and staff are extremely loyal to the Rendezvous. One server has been on staff for over 50 years. His picture is even on the big mural painted in the alley. My dad didn’t care for the servers brisk, gruff manner, and I’ve had friends say the same. It’s manner of preference, just like the ribs. I liked him. He was full of character, just like the old basement. I overheard another customer talking about eating at Rendezvous once a week for the past 30 years. His son had just started college at the University of Memphis. He was looking forward to continuing the tradition with his son.
Definitely try: you have to try the ribs with their unique Greek seasoning
Showboat Barbecue ????
Showboat Barbecue started out as a Colman’s Bar-B-Q (just like Captain John’s).
Owner Porter Moss has been making barbecue since the 50s when he worked at Tops Bar-B-Q. Showboat is one of the few remaining Memphis barbecue restaurants that still cooks with a brick barbecue pit. The whole place is steeped in Memphis barbecue tradition.
We ordered the combo platter for $17.99. Large enough for two people, it came with slaw, potato salad, 2 1/2 slabs of ribs, and pulled pork. Meat was served wet with a generous helping of sweet and tangy barbecue sauce. If you don’t like your food to touch, this is not the place for you. If you like tender, smokey pork with “lick your fingers” good sauce, then Showboat is the where you need to be.
Definitely try: ribs are a true treat
No website found.
Tom’s Barbecue & Deli ????
Tom’s Barbecue and Deli is located in a hodgepodge of a building in south Memphis. The building has expanded several times, so there’s the kitchen, another section where a dining room was built on. Then there’s the front section.
There was a line when we went to Tom’s, but the staff is super efficient, and we weren’t waiting for more than five minutes. The original owner, Tom Sturgius, was a Greek immigrant so the rub mix contains some of the same flavor profiles that you find at Rendezvous. The current owner has kept the same rub seasoning that Sturgius created.
Joe had the ribs and didn’t really care for the Mediterranean flavors. I had the pulled pork sandwich, topped with sauce and slaw. Perfect! It was drippy, messy goodness. The fries that came with the sandwich were cooked with just the right amount of crispness.
Definitely try: pulled pork sandwich
Top’s Bar-B-Q ????
The first Tops opened in 1952, and soon became a small chain. I would describe Tops as more like fast-food barbecue. There are 15 franchise locations located around Memphis. It’s cheap, fast, and pretty good eats. Consistency is maintained throughout the different independently owned restaurants. In fact, all the slaw is made in one central location.
We stopped at the Lamar Ave. location one recent Sunday afternoon on our way back from a road trip. For those of you familiar with Memphis, you know that Lamar can be kind of sketchy. When we visited, the customers were mainly the “Sunday after church” crowd, with several men coming in obviously getting big orders for Sunday afternoon football game watch-parties.
We tried the sampler platter advertised on the marquee outside. Our total with drinks was $19.32. Good, cheap eats!
Definitely try: You can’t beat the sampler platter for value.
There you have it –the ultimate Memphis barbecue guide! Have we triggered your taste buds for some tender ribs and delicious pulled pork? What do you think of our list? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share by commenting below! We’d love to hear about any other barbecue restaurants we should check out. Keep up with all of our travel, camping, and cycling tips by following us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest (lots of Memphis pins). Leave us your email (blue box at the bottom of the post) to subscribe to our weekly newsletter and never miss a post!