Behind the Scenes of the Southern Living Top 50 BBQ List

A splendid tray at Goldee's in Fort Worth, which was the highest new restaurant to make it onto this years Top 50 BBQ list
A splendid tray at Goldee's in Fort Worth, which was the highest new restaurant to make it onto this years Top 50 BBQ list

My latest list of The South's Top 50 Barbecue Joints just came out in Southern Living, and this year’s rankings have generated a lot of buzz (and brickbats) on social media. It’s gotten picked up by a lot of local newspapers, too, which tend to run features assessing how many of their city’s or state’s favorite joints made the cut.

As a result, I often get asked what the criteria are for the list and how we go about compiling it. After fielding several such inquiries in the past week or two, I figured I’d pull them together into a short Q&A that reveals how the sausage (and slow-smoked brisket and pork shoulder) are made.

Q: How often does Southern Living compile Its Top 50 List?

A: We were publishing the Top 50 list annually through 2019, but we suspended the list in 2020 due to the pandemic, and the travel picture still was too murky in 2021. We're thrilled to bring it back in 2022.

Q: What's the timeline and methodology for creating the list? Is it all done in bursts or a longer road trip, and is each place visited individually, or do you ask restaurants to apply or submit information?

A: The list is the product of a continual series of barbecue tours and "research" trips (read: eating way too much tasty barbecue). Some are made as part of working on other barbecue features for Southern Living, others are undertaken specifically to revisit restaurants on prior years' lists and to visit new potential contenders, which I track down myself through my own research and consulting with fellow barbecue enthusiasts. I have personally visited and eaten at every single restaurant on this list, and I've visited almost all of them multiple times (the exceptions being new ones that opened in the past year or so.)

Q: What are the factors used in determining the rankings? Flavor, service, pricing, quality of meats, etc.?

A: Ultimately, we are judging the overall experience of dining at these restaurants. That includes the physical setting, the aroma from the pits, the sauces and dishes served alongside. Whether it’s a bare-bones take-out stand or a full-service restaurant with a wine list and clean restrooms, each place needs a spirit and flair that’s all its own in order to make the cut.

We try to cast as wide a net as possible, too, seeking out the restaurants that best embody the particular barbecue style of their region. That said, the quality of the ‘cue is essential. Be it slow-smoked brisket or charcoal-grilled ribs or even house-cured pastrami, nothing else matters if the barbecue isn’t delicious.

Q: Do you follow the Kansas City (or other) judging guidelines, or is it more idiosyncratic? How many people have a say?

A: The process is unapologetically impressionistic, highly personal, and very idiosyncratic. No offense to barbecue sanctioning bodies or others trying to judge scientifically with complex scoring rubrics and meats in anonymous styrofoam boxes, but that's not how most diners experience barbecue. The South's Top 50 BBQ list is compiled and ranked solely by me, Southern Living's Contributing Barbecue Editor, and no one else has a say. Please note that this list is distinct from our South's Best rankings, which are released each spring and are based upon a survey of tens of thousands of our readers. You can think of that list as the "readers' choice" and this one as the "editor's picks." (There is a lot of overlap between the two rankings, though.)

Q: How do you respond to the inevitable "You got it wrong!" replies to any such comparison/list?

A: There are so many wonderful barbecue restaurants in the South that trying to narrow it down to just the top 50 is really, really hard. Just because a restaurant didn't make it on this year's list doesn't mean I think it's not a great place to eat barbecue. A ton of worthy contenders were on the bubble and just barely missed the cut. I did, however, make a conscious effort to explain in each entry why that particular restaurant stands out from the pack and why it made it onto the list.

I totally expect readers to disagree (and many to disagree vehemently, for everything in barbecue is controversial), but there are far too many high-quality restaurants out there and a limited number of slots on the list. In the end, you have to make the hard calls, explain the reasoning, and stand by it—until the next list comes out, at least.