In 1979 The Skylight Inn BBQ restaurant in Ayden, NC was named the BBQ capital of the world by National Geographic. So to make it somewhat official, founder and owner Pete Jones had somewhat of a replica of the US Capitol dome built to sit atop his nondescript brick building. Known for it basic menu of eastern style whole hog chopped BBQ, the Skylight Inn has been serving up award winning BBQ to locals, travelers, American Presidents and international guests since 1947 in the sleepy town of Ayden, NC (which is also known as the collards capital of the world). A short 20 min drive south of Greenville, Ayden and the Skylight Inn are off the beaten path for most people, but that doesn’t stop BBQ aficionados, questers and fans from going out of their way to give the pork a try, myself included. In 2003 The James Beard Foundation awarded the Skylight the 2003 American Classics Restaurant award, so this place has been recognized by a lot more than BBQ schlubs like myself.
I made plans to head to the Skylight on the way back from a business trip in Norfolk, VA. The drive was mostly on two lane back country roads with plenty of cotton and soybean fields surrounding old rotting and beat down barns, sheds and houses. It kind of set the stage. Unlike Wilber’s in Goldsboro, the Skylight Inn isn’t on any major through-way that gets a ton of traffic. It sits in a gravel parking lot on the side of South Lee St. outside of the main part of Ayden (which isn’t saying much). You can see the “Capitol” dome with the ever present Old Glory as you come up on it. The sign, a recent addition, says “If it’s not cooked with wood, it’s not BBQ”. Damn straight. As soon as you step in you can hear the rhythmic pounding of BBQ being chopped by some dual cleaver wielding employee. The smell of smoke is prevalent (as it damn well should be) and the starkness of the plain walls tells you this place means BBQ business. There’s no table service. You step up to the counter and place your order then take it to one of the many school cafeteria type tables throughout the three or four large plain rooms. Right behind the counter is an open window into the kitchen and that’s where the man wielding the cleavers is going to town on large hunks of smoked pork, chopping away like a drummer on a snare drum. Bring cash because they don’t accept cards, which fits the place. And like a few other old school BBQ joints I’ve been in recently there is a sign asking you to get off your cell phone when at the counter. And really, if you need a sign to tell you that you’ve got bigger problems.
The menu is small and BBQ focused. They offer chopped pork, chicken, cornbread and a that’s about it. Until recently they only offered bottled drinks but now have a soda machine and iced tea. You can get a sandwich or a small, medium or large “tray”. Tray here means one of those red and white paper trays that I always associate with fries or hush-puppies. You get one filled with chopped pork, the a slice of a super dense skillet cornbread stacked on top of that then another tray full of slaw on top of that with a sheet of wax paper as your table cover. The pork is classic eastern whole hog style with bits of fat and cracklin’ and the occasional piece of gristle mixed in with the medium chopped meat. The smoke is well represented and there’s just a hint of “sauce”. The sauce, so I understand it, is just a mix of vinegar and Texas Pete administered as the meat is chopped. It works. I’m not one to over-sauce anyway but I felt no need to add anything to Skylight’s que. The slaw is a light mayo based fine chopped sweet slaw and it accompanies the pork well. The third part of the “tray’ trinity is a large square of a dense skillet cornbread rumored to be from a 180 year old recipe. A little salty and crisp with a dense center. A bite of the cornbread, que and slaw is pretty damn perfect. Is this the best BBQ in the world? Who knows. There are so many good BBQ places (and bad ones) out there and I hate giving titles to one over another. Is this damn good Eastern Style BBQ. You better believe it. Ayden is not in my normal traveling pattern but I’m sure I’ll make it back.