Sam Jones BBQ: a family tradition
Sam Jones, known for cooking some of the most acclaimed whole hog barbecue in the South, is coming to Raleigh.
The fourth-generation pitmaster and James Beard semifinalist is opening his second Sam Jones BBQ restaurant at 502 W. Lenoir St., in the former Dusty’s Garage near Boylan Heights, he said, forecasting an opening next fall.
His first Sam Jones BBQ opened in 2015 near Greenville. It’s eight miles from his family’s legendary Skylight Inn in Ayden, a modest brick restaurant topped by a silver Capitol dome, self-proclaiming it as the center of the barbecue universe.
It takes an hour and 27 minutes to get from Raleigh to the back door of the Skylight Inn, but Jones said the same barbecue tradition there will be the centerpiece of what goes on at Sam Jones BBQ in Raleigh.
“There’s no other way to recreate whole hog barbecue, the fat rendering, dripping down over hot coals, sizzling, the plume of smoke rising, there’s nothing else you can do to get it like that,” Jones said in an interview.
“The barbecue at Skylight and Sam Jones BBQ is exactly the same, but the experience is different,” he said. “This will still be Sam Jones barbecue, and (diners) will still be eating a piece of North Carolina history.”
The Jones family opened the Skylight Inn in 1947 as a bare bones operation, serving chopped whole hog barbecue in the Eastern North Carolina way and staying much the same ever since. Skylight is owned by Sam’s father, Bruce, and uncle Jeff Jones and is operated by about a dozen employees, including Sam.
Sam Jones looked at five sites in the Raleigh area for his venture beyond Eastern North Carolina, but came back to a building he first heard about from chef and friend Ashley Christensen, who owns several restaurants in downtown Raleigh.
“Three years ago, Ashley randomly called me and told me she drives by this building almost every day, and every time she can smell smoke coming out of it,” Jones said. “I didn’t see it at first, I said this ain’t gonna work.”
But it stayed with him. He began to see the smokehouse out back and the stack of wood destined for coals to feed the pits.
The garage is owned by developer James A. Goodnight, who bought it in 2015 with plans to redevelop the property. Longtime tenant Dusty’s Garage moved out in spring of 2017 when its lease was not renewed.
The building is 5,000 square feet, with plans filed with the city detailing a 1,000-square-foot addition.
Barbecue is in the midst of a revival in the South and beyond, with Jones among a generation of pitmasters serving some of the most sought-after bites of food in the country. Pilgrims wait in line for hours for brisket in Texas and drive half a day for whole hog barbecue in North Carolina. Many of those who tend the coals have names and fame, and even the awards previously reserved for fine dining chefs.
In the last three years, two pitmasters have won prestigious James Beard best chef awards for their respective regions.
Jones, himself, was longlisted for a James Beard Award this year, and earned his first nomination for the Best Chef: Southeast award. That award went to fellow pitmaster Rodney Scott for his Rodney Scott BBQ in Charleston.
“Barbecue was peasant food, and up until the last decade, it was always that way,” Jones said. “Then all of a sudden it’s looked at as a craft. There’s this mystique around the pitmaster.”
Next year, in addition to working on his restaurant, his first cookbook will be published. “Whole Hog BBQ: The Gospel of Carolina Barbecue with Recipes from Skylight Inn and Sam Jones BBQ,” co-written with barbecue writer Daniel Vaughn, is set for a May 7 release.
Raleigh restaurant details
The Raleigh Sam Jones BBQ will serve the same base menu as the Winterville location. That’s first and foremost the Jones family tray of chopped barbecue, sweet slaw and a thin square of cornbread. From there expect the spare ribs, smoked turkey, mac and cheese, house salad and all the other modern derivations that separate Skylight and Sam Jones.
Perhaps the greatest break with tradition at Sam Jones BBQ is the beer served. Within the first few weeks of opening, admirers sent flowers and cards, but Jones caught some heat for adding alcohol. One woman pulled into the drive-thru and summoned Jones personally, notifying him that he would be going to hell for selling that beer.
The Raleigh location goes farther, adding a full bar and serving cocktails alongside beer and wine.
Other menu details specific to Raleigh, as well as the overall design are still being worked out. Jones’ partner in opening the Winterville spot is Michael Letchworth, who also will help operate the Raleigh location.
The location at the edge of residential Boylan Heights, across the street from angular modern condos and a forthcoming high rise, puts Raleigh’s Sam Jones BBQ in the middle of the city’s growth.
Jones, who often is found throughout the year in Raleigh smoking a hog for charity or cooking at an event, said he wants the new restaurant to feel part of the community.
“Any person or business is automatically a thread in the fabric of that community,” Jones said. “You can be a strong thread or a weak thread. I hope we’re instantly a part of that community. Not just because we’re a new restaurant, but because our neighbors are proud to have us here.”
Zachery Eanes contributed to this report.