In this ephemeral world, it’s hard to find a place that adheres to tradition like Ayden, North Carolina’s Skylight Inn BBQ. But, it’s the longstanding barbecue tradition and reputation, that has my husband and I making the nearly two-hour pilgrimage from Raleigh through winding, country roads to get a taste of the whole-hog, pit-smoked Eastern-style barbecue on a Monday morning.
Once you pull up onto the gravel parking lot in front of the restaurant and look to your left at the giant sign crowned above the picnic shelter, you’ll gather quick sense of the creed that founder Pete Jones and those that now work for his business believe in. Emblazoned on the sign, under the name of the restaurant: “If it’s not cooked with WOOD, It’s not BBQ”. The proof is indeed in the heaping stacks of hickory and oak piled behind the brick building with a replica of the Capitol Building perched on its roof, a nod to its bestowed reputation as the “Bar-B-Q Capital of the World”.
Founded in 1947 by Jones, Skylight Inn BBQ still has not deviated much from the good ol’ days. It’s still a classic order at the counter, cash-only kind of joint, much to the chagrin of out-of-towners, and the slow-cooked meat is sold by trays or by the pound. A medium barbecue tray will set you back $7 and it comes with a slice of cornbread and a tray of coleslaw with a plastic fork wedged deep inside.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see a mustachioed, very muscular gentlemen through the open kitchen wielding two rather large cleavers chop your barbecue on the cutting board before your eyes–the violent, rhythmic whacks against the wooden board almost lull in you into an euphonic stupor as you look around the dining room to study the many accolades and magazine honors that Skylight Inn has received, including a James Beard Award, hung around the walls.
The tray of chopped ‘cue will soon jolt you back to reality as you douse the moist meat with the tangy, peppery Eastern-style barbecue sauce on the table. Skylight Inn mixes in huge nubs of cracklings into its chopped barbecue which will make your jaw do some extra work as you gnaw through the crispy bits. You can also indulge in the tray of coleslaw, minced cabbage swimming in Kraft mayo and vinegar, which I found a little too soupy for my own liking.
That or maybe the cornbread that comes with the tray, a thick, dense slice that seems absent of any type of leavening agent. It’s a strange version of cornbread, one with a little hint of lard or bacon drippings, and it looks more like a yellow brick smashed on top of the barbecue than any type of bread. I suppose it harkens back to a traditional recipe, one that’s pared down and easy, and only uses cornmeal and water. It would all make sense at place like Skylight Inn that staunchly honors its roots.
The meat is the star at Skylight Inn, and it shines. Don’t expect any superfluous sides–you can get that elsewhere. The meat is superb, the tea is sweet, and the coleslaw is…there. The barbecue is what has kept people going to Skylight Inn for more than six decades and it’ll likely keep people going for six more.
SKYLIGHT INN BBQ | 4618 Lee Street Ayden, NC 28513 | 252.746.4113