This story was originally published on Departures.com in October 2020.
Road trips can take on many thematic forms, and are often built around scenic drives, famous landmarks, or national parks. There’s no reason you can’t get a bit more creative with your next adventure, and when you consider that many seasoned road trippers are fanatically devoted to their preferred snacks or famous roadside stops, it makes perfect sense to go one step further and commit to one genre of food. We propose a road trip built on the smoky and wondrous promise of barbecue.
A luxury itinerary across the American South, connecting the dots between some of the region’s brightest lights with its overlooked gems, will offer a landscape flowing from the low country of South Carolina to the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, all the way through to the vast expanse of Texas. As the aesthetics shift so do the eats, from pulled pork to ribs and then brisket. This 2,000 mile, 30-hour journey will fill your heart, mind, and of course, stomach, with seven stops for a regional tour de force of American barbecue.
Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina
Starting off at the southern tip of the Carolinas offers a glimpse at the bucolic beauty of the low country, and a chance to begin the journey in style at the Montage Palmetto Bluff. The property is part of the 20,000-acre Palmetto Bluff community, and is a serene snapshot of the South and the evocative, picturesque Spanish moss-draped live oak trees for which the area is known. The Montage has traditional rooms as well as extravagant standalone cottages, replete with features such as private verandas, fireplaces, claw-foot tubs, and steam showers. Start feasting at one of the many on-site dining options, Cole’s, featuring a smokehouse menu highlighted by pulled pork and smoked chicken, as well as sides including slaw, mac and cheese, and fried pickles.
From Palmetto Bluff, you’re also situated right outside of Savannah, Georgia, worth an afternoon of exploration for its iconic and charming historic neighborhoods. Stop into Savannah Smokehouse for their meat plates, excellent mac and cheese, collards, and regional sides such as fried okra and Brunswick stew.
Asheville, North Carolina
Head northeast from the low country to Asheville, a perfect gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains, and a regional powerhouse when it comes to the triple Bs of beer, biscuits, and barbecue. Stay at The Foundry, adjacent to the South Slope District and its endless assortment of all three Bs. The swanky hotel is a collection of several historic buildings tied together with new construction, with rooms showcasing exposed brick walls and décor nodding to the area’s history.
A grassy open courtyard leads to the on-site Benne on Eagle, where down home Southern fare is served in the form of Affrilachian cuisine, combining the tradition of local ingredients and dishes from the Appalachians with flavor and influence from west Africa. Dishes such as soup beans with hunks of smoky pork and black-eyed peas, and heavenly pillows of house-made potato rolls, will get you primed for more eats around town. Stop into Buxton Hall, known for their eastern Carolina pulled pork served with vinegar sauce, and excellent collard greens, or Luella’s for chopped pork, barbecue baked potatoes, and smoked wings.
Continue onto Birmingham, with an optional en-route stop in Atlanta. Otherwise continue straight through to Alabama, and consider a stay at The Redmont, the oldest hotel in the city, positioned downtown and a short walk to the city’s Civil Rights Heritage Trail and Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. After studying up, fill up with a trip to Rodney Scott’s BBQ, where the James Beard Award-winning pitmaster serves up traditional whole hog barbecue. The signature King of the Menu sandwich features pulled pork piled high and topped with fried pork skins and Rod’s eastern Carolina vinegar sauce. You could instead veer toward a more traditional in-state topping, and grab some Alabama white sauce for your meal.
Head northwest and you’ll drive through Tupelo, Mississippi, the hometown of Elvis, before passing Graceland itself and heading into Memphis, tucked into the southwestern corner of Tennessee. You’ll be following the path of Elvis and the blues artists before him, who came from Mississippi to Memphis to pursue their careers, and happened to find a barbecue haven when they arrived. Stay at the Arrive Memphis, from the boutique hotel chain with five locations across the country, including Palm Springs, Phoenix, Austin, and Wilmington. The property is located in what was formerly the Hyde Gallery and Memphis College of Art graduate studios, paying homage to that with an abundance of local art. Rooms are industrial chic, with exposed brick walls and concrete floors offset with carefully curated décor and furnishings including colorful rugs, patterned wallpaper, steampunk fixtures, and leather chairs. An on-site poker room is inspired by the famous billiards room you can tour at Graceland, and the cocktails at Bar Hustle in the lobby are some of the best in the city.
Ribs are the name of the game in Memphis, and there’s an abundance of options including Charlie Vergos Rendezvous, Central BBQ, and Leonard’s, to name three stalwarts. You can go dry or wet with your ribs, or for good measure, try both to see which you prefer. Don’t skip Coletta’s, though, an Italian restaurant famous for its barbecue pizza, a game-changing and jaw-dropping mammoth creation that’s more akin to a Chicago deep-dish pie with pulled pork and barbecue sauce replacing marinara and mozzarella, than the typical barbecue pizza you’ve likely encountered in your life.
Stretch out your legs for the longest drive of the journey, and set your eyes on Austin, though you’ll drive past Dallas if you need an extra stop. Austin has become a barbecue mecca, and the newly opened Commodore Perry Estate, Auberge Resorts Collection near the University of Texas campus, is an idyllic landing spot. The historic landmark and 10-acre estate was re-imagined into a charming luxury hotel, with the original mansion, carriage house, and chapel now joined by a new main inn. A stroll across the grounds almost feels like a trip to the Mediterranean, with crushed white-stone walkways, manicured gardens, and a lavish pool.
Tough as it may be to drag yourself from your room, there’s work to do. Franklin’s is the most well-known operation in town when it comes to barbecue, and their protocol has shifted so that the infamous multi-hour line has been replaced with online ordering. Nevertheless, they sell out days in advance. Fear not, for many in Austin say the brisket at La Barbecue is even better, and for this particular hungry writer, it was indeed the best brisket sampled anywhere in town, or the state, for that matter. The pork ribs also come recommended, along with a smattering of sides, including offerings such as kimchi. With several locations in and around Austin, Southside Market & Barbecue is another worthy contender. The history there stretches back all the way to 1882, and the brisket and beef sausage are both staples, along with more modern twists, such as their sausage slammers, featuring a cheese-stuffed jalapeño further stuffed into a pork sausage and rolled up with bacon.
San Antonio, Texas
A short drive south takes you to San Antonio, and since your journey is so brief, take a detour through the Hill Country to knock off a few more barbecue staples. The Salt Lick is an iconic destination, and the massive, scenic compound in Driftwood feels like a barbecue Disneyland. Some say the turkey is even better than the brisket, while loaded plates come with potato salad, slaw, beans, and rolls. A lesser-known local favorite is Old 300 BBQ in Blanco, where brisket and ribs both shine, alongside signature sandwich creations named for Texas heroes and a range of cobblers for dessert.
After all that, it’s probably time to put your feet up. Continue to San Antonio and stay along the river at Hotel Emma, built in the former Pearl’s Brewhouse, dating back to 1894. The hotel boasts a grand lobby and rooftop pool, as well as several dining concepts, while guests are welcomed with signature margaritas in a multi-story library stocked with thousands of books. The rooms retained the building’s roots, with slab floors, exposed beams, and columns in double-high ceilings, though they’re now adorned with modern creature comforts, ranging from four-post beds to tiled bathrooms, as well as a pantry stocked with margarita fixings. The hotel is now the centerpiece of the trendy Pearl District, and next door you’ll find a food hall and a wide array of shops and restaurants. Tex Mex may be more the focus than barbecue in San Antonio, but don’t let that deter you. Worthy stops include 2M Smokehouse, B&B Smokehouse, and the aptly named Alamo BBQ Company.
It’s time to leave big city Texas behind and head toward wide-open west Texas. It’s not as if Lubbock is tiny, though. Known as the Hub City, Lubbock has a quarter million residents and offers an abundance of cultural and arts attractions, including the forthcoming Buddy Holly Hall of Performing Arts and Sciences, not to mention a bustling wine scene, with standouts including McPherson Cellars Winery, Llano Estacado, and English Newsom Cellars. Stay at the brand new Cotton Court Hotel, a boutique property which just debuted this fall and pays homage to the area’s cotton production. The entire hotel is built as if it were an old cotton gin and factory. Vintage-inspired rooms feature full-size retro Smeg refrigerators and sliding barnyard bathroom doors, with muted greens and oranges showcasing patterns of cotton and cotton fields. The large courtyard is the hotel’s all-purpose hangout area, with yard games, a heated pool, an outdoor bar, and fireplaces.
But you’re here for the barbecue, right? And there’s one more must-visit destination to hit before you go vegetarian for a while. Just outside of town is Evie Mae’s BBQ, known nationally as one of the best barbecue restaurants in Texas. Known for prime rib as well as barbecue, the moist brisket is a standout, along with signature sides such as the baked potato casserole, essentially a warm, loaded potato salad and the pinnacle of comfort food.