North Carolina boasts a bounty of flavors, from coastal seafood to farm-fresh fruits and vegetables to multiple styles of barbecue that spark friendly rivalries among fans. Here are some favorite places to enjoy the best of what the Tar Heel State has to offer.
Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs
When it comes to choosing sides in the barbecue battles, it all comes down to the sauce. In the Lexington area, that means a tangy, vinegar-based blend with ketchup, salt, pepper and an occasional "secret" spice or two. It’s tradition to dip the pork shoulder meat into the sauce, rather than pouring it on. Don’t be confused when you see "barbecue slaw" on the menu. It’s not cooked, but dressed with this favored sauce in lieu of bland mayonnaise. Lexington’s legendary Barbecue Center has been operating since the 1950s and continually wins over new generations of fans, including Bobby Flay, who visited on BBQ with Bobby Flay.
Blue crabs thrive in the temperate Atlantic waters off the Carolina coast, and provide local restaurants with plenty of iconic seafood dishes, especially she-crab bisque. The rich blend of fish stock, crabmeat, cream and sherry is often finished with the orange fish roe that gives the soup its golden color. Colington Café in Kill Devil Hills is famous for its version of the iconic dish. Tucked into a cove, the quaint, Victorian-style space makes the most of North Carolina’s bounty.
North Carolina is ninth in U.S. peach production. And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense that you’d find great Peach Cobbler at an eatery inside a farmers’ market, since that’s where the freshest food is. The State Farmers’ Market Restaurant is located on the Raleigh grounds where growers for decades have brought their crops to sell, and it’s open for breakfast and lunch. Here, the restaurant staff bustles about serving fresh-made biscuits, omelettes and sandwiches. Those alone would be enough to entice diners to stop in, but it’s even more tempting when peach cobbler is featured as the dessert of the day. It’s the perfect combination of sweet fruit, mild spices and a buttery, baked crust.
Shrimp and grits first began as a Carolina fishermen’s breakfast, but it’s become a cult favorite for its buttery base and plump, sweet local shrimp. Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill (which sadly closed in 2021) helped put shrimp and grits on the menu map, especially for newcomers unfamiliar with the dish. The space, which was formerly a market, a taxi stand and a pool hall, earned awards for its thoughtful preparations of regional foods.
When the red neon "Hot Now" sign beckons from the highway, few drivers can resist the pull of Krispy Kreme. Though it’s now an international sensation, the doughnut chain got its start in Old Salem, North Carolina. Inside the store, delicious doughnuts arrive, fresh off the conveyor belt that delivers them the instant they’re fried and finished with glaze from a mesmerizing waterfall of frosting. The company offers dozens of different flavors and shapes, but lots of regular customers still prefer the original.
Eastern North Carolina barbecue can lay claim to the phrase "whole hog," because it’s where pit-masters cook the entire animal over wood, then use cleavers to chop the different light and dark cuts of meat together. Smoky bits of skin add flecks of flavor to the dish. The farther east you travel, the less you’ll see the ketchup-based sauces favored in the central and western parts of the state. Skylight Inn has earned a legendary reputation, and a spot on Top 5: BBQ, giving diners all the more reasons to line up at the spot where the proprietors have been "Choppin’ since 1947."
Go to: Skylight Inn BBQ
Fried Green Tomatoes
A summertime favorite across the South, fried green tomatoes are ideal straight from the garden. After that, Mama Dip’s in Chapel Hill is the next-best option. Diners have the option of a small or a large serving of sliced green tomatoes, dredged in cornmeal, fried to crispness and served piping hot. That might make some people wonder: Is this dish so good that you’d want to eat double the amount of any other vegetable? The answer is yes. Nicknamed Dip for her long arms that could reach the bottom of a water barrel, Mildred Council has been cooking for her entire life. In 1976, she opened Mama Dip’s in the heart of Chapel Hill’s college community. Two acclaimed cookbooks and several branded products later, Mama Dip still lures home-cooking fans to her restaurant for the best fried green tomatoes anywhere.
Forget toast: In the Carolinas, biscuits are the accompanying bread of choice. And though most anything sweet or savory can be served on a hot, fluffy biscuit, gravy is the topping of choice. There are hundreds of places in the state to get a tasty version of biscuits and gravy, but for inventive takes, head to Asheville’s Biscuit Head. The kitchen delivers gravy “flights” to the table so guests can sample several different tastes at a single sitting. Purists will want to include chicken or pork gravy. There are also mushroom and meatless “chorizo” options for vegetarians. An updated version of classic red-eye gravy replaces the traditional coffee with espresso.
Ruth's Pimento Spread
With its unassuming plastic container, this cheese product — sold in supermarket dairy cases — may not look like a star dish with its own cult-like following. But a grilled cheese sandwich made with Ruth’s Pimento Spread is a regional favorite that turns skeptics into believers. The family-owned company, founded in the 1950s, also makes chili, slaw and other salads, but the blended orange cheese, studded with red pepper flakes, remains the favorite.
Fish camps were some of the first "pop-up" restaurants. They originated along river shores where fishermen pulled up to unload, clean and sell their catch. And while there may be more elegant fish in the region, none are more popular than catfish, which are now farm-raised for milder, more consistent flavor. Some fish camps became permanent but they still maintain their casual atmosphere, just like Holland’s Shelter Creek Restaurant, a waterside spot with a bucolic view and simple décor. It’s been in operation since the 1980s, and serves up a Fried Catfish and Shrimp Platter that’s a doubly delicious combo.
Even with the car windows rolled up, travelers can smell the hickory wood smoke before Bridges Barbecue comes into view. Red Bridges and his wife, Lyttle, opened their first joint in 1946, but moved in 1953 to the current location on a busy stretch of Highway 74. The second and third generation of the Bridges family have succeeded their elders, now smoking the pork shoulders daily. Served chopped and topped — after cooking — with a sweet-and-tangy sauce that’s lighter than most others, the meat is the star of the show. Add hot-from-the-fryer cornmeal hushpuppies with some slaw, and you’ve got Bridges’ perennially popular Barbecue Tray, which draws diners from all across the U.S.
Creamy, cheesy and utterly comforting, macaroni and cheese is nearly ubiquitous in North Carolina. The United House of Prayer for All People is a church denomination that’s growing across the country. With several locations in Charlotte, its restaurants serve traditional, Southern meals in the meat-and-three style. Parishioners and casual visitors alike make their way through the cafeteria line as cooks dish up meatloaf, smothered pork chops, ribs and other all-American favorites. True Southerners know the sides — beans, greens, potatoes, rice or corn — are just as important as the main event. But of them, the mandatory selection is a generous scoop of UHOPFAP baked macaroni and cheese. It perfectly combines a lightly browned top with the creamy pasta inside.
Sweet Potato Pie
North Carolina is the top U.S. producer of sweet potatoes, so it’s only natural you’d find the best pie here, too. The old tobacco town of Winston-Salem is now home to a modern arts district, a flourishing area that chefs Stephanie Tyson and Vivián Joiner chose as the locale for Sweet Potatoes, their restaurant. Guests who tuck in to lunch, brunch and dinner plates know to save room for dessert. Here, that means the unparalleled pie that begins with a flaky crust and a layer of candied sweet potatoes, topped with a layer of mashed sweet potatoes that’s baked before a finishing layer of whipped cream.
Cheerwine’s motto is "Born in the South, Raised in a Glass." The bubbly, cherry-flavored cola was invented in 1917, and received the gift of distribution outside the Carolinas for its centennial. There’s no alcohol in it; the "wine" refers to the garnet color. Audaciously proclaiming itself the perfect beverage to accompany the South’s most revered dish — barbecue — the company now markets its own barbecue sauce. Even better, add the soda to genuine Cheerwine ice cream to create a float with a double dose of that unique flavor.
Johnson's Drive-In Cheeseburgers
Fans will tell you there aren’t a lot of reasons to travel to the tiny town of Siler City, but that a burger from Johnson’s Drive-In is the best one there is. Leonard and Christine Johnson opened in 1946; today, their son, Claxton, is in charge. Each day Claxton selects and grinds the beef for the burgers, then shapes the thick patties. It’s a quick trip from the grill to the plate and on to the lunch counter, where hungry customers await. Regulars know to arrive early, because once the burgers sell out, folks will have to settle for a hot dog or cheese sandwich — or come back a bit earlier the next day.
A favorite at Christmas, Moravian sugar cookies are impossibly thin wafers that date back to American Colonial times. Nab them in Old Salem’s living history village, where they’re made by bakers garbed in period costumes at Winkler Bakery. Long-time fans still prefer the original ginger and sugar, although new flavors include pumpkin and key lime. Grab some in souvenir-style tins or steal a tip from the pros and get a bag of broken cookies — unsalable but still delicious — to snack on while strolling the cobblestone streets that date back to 1766.
For years, slaw lovers have tried to unlock the mystery to R.O.’s secret recipe. The slaw at this Gastonia spot is no mere side item on a take-out plate; it’s a key ingredient that tops burgers or sandwiches and makes them memorable. The unique preparation starts with a slurry of finely processed cabbage, then gets a hit of mayo, hot and sweet spices, and pimientos. The result isn’t green like ordinary slaw: It’s a creamy, light orange color. While the uninitiated may scoff at first, most become fans after just a few bites.
Traditional liver pudding (or livermush) is a type of country-style sausage made without casings. It dates back to the early days of Colonial America, when European settlers blended pork livers with spices and small amounts of wheat or corn to make a smooth-textured pâté. Since the Carolinas lacked grasslands to graze cattle, pork became preferable. The Neese family started delivering farm-made sausage to customers in 1917, although they have long since replaced their original covered wagon with a fleet of refrigerated trucks. Sliced and fried, liver pudding or livermush often accompanies eggs and biscuits for breakfast, but its fans will also top it with chili and chopped onions and serve it up on a hamburger bun.
Both Virginia and South Carolina trumpet Brunswick Stew, but North Carolina also boldly lays claim to this thick preparation of tomatoes, lima beans, potatoes and meat. It’s an old dish believed to have been developed by European immigrants. Admittedly, the stew is typically plays a supporting role to barbecue at the family-owned White Swan in Smithfield, where it’s served as a side item. It doesn’t have to be that way: A bowl is satisfying enough to stand as a meal on its own.
Mt. Airy is best known as the town that inspired the fictional Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show. And here on Main Street, Snappy Lunch has been operating continuously since the 1920s. As a boy, Griffith ate here and once mentioned it on his show. According to local lore, the name came about early on, when workers on their lunch breaks ordered sandwiches and requested that the clerks "Make it snappy!" Each day, the line forms early and stretches down the block. But it moves quickly past the large storefront window. That’s where customers can watch as cooks dip boneless pork chops in batter, fry them until golden, then place them on fresh buns with condiments and chili.
Briskets and Butts
Determined to create a product that’s a cut above, Haywood Smokehouse uses only meats without hormones or steroids. Cooking pork butts from 14 to 18 hours and beef briskets from 16 to 20 hours on-site guarantees the best result. Inside the homey, barn-red building decorated in rustic style, guests dine to the tunes of local bluegrass pickers. Order your chopped pork either "naked" or "dressed" with slaw, and your beef brisket in the unadorned "cowboy" style or as a "Texas melt" with grilled onions and peppers.
Barbecue and Beyond: The Most-Iconic Food in North Carolina? ›
Barbecue. The main food that North Carolina is known for is barbecue. North Carolina has two styles of barbecue: Eastern and Lexington.What is North Carolina's most iconic food? ›
Barbecue. The main food that North Carolina is known for is barbecue. North Carolina has two styles of barbecue: Eastern and Lexington.What is North Carolina's state food? ›
|State||Food type||Food name|
|New York||State fruit||Apple|
|State muffin||Apple muffin|
|North Carolina||State vegetable||Sweet potato|
- BBQ. This is an all-time favorite in Charlotte. ...
- Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. We all know that Americans love their morning coffee with their go-to egg sandwiches and bagels. ...
- Burgers. ...
- Seafood. ...
- Mount Olive Pickles. ...
The Carolinas BBQ
This BBQ style has two camps: North and South Carolina. Proponents of both styles favor pork as the main meat. In North Carolina, the pork is typically brushed with a spice-and-vinegar mop as it's cooking. It's then portioned out and served with a ketchup-based sauce on the side.
Barbecue. North Carolina is a barbecue state, and they take their barbecue seriously.What dessert is NC known for? ›
Sonker is North Carolina's most popular dessert that most people have never even heard of, let alone baked at home. It was invented to feed a hungry crowd, and a wide variety of sonker recipes are handed down from generation to generation in Surry County, North Carolina.What is North Carolina's state food and drink? ›
North Carolina likes to get specific when it comes to its state foods. It has a state red berry, the strawberry, and a state blue berry, the blueberry. The Scuppernong grape is also North Carolina's state fruit, the sweet potato is its state vegetable, and milk is its state drink.What seafood is North Carolina known for? ›
North Carolina is close to the Gulf Stream, where fisherfolk catch mahi-mahi, tuna, swordfish, and other large migratory species. Coastal species like drum, trout, shrimp, and blue crabs feel at home in the state's extensive network of sounds, rivers, and estuarine environments.What food is Greensboro NC known for? ›
Greensboro is also a burger- and biscuit-loving Southern city, and staples like pulled pork pop up in brunch hashes and mac-and-cheese tacos.
What drink is North Carolina known for? ›
The Cherry Bounce is North Carolina's signature drink, and for good reason. According to local folklore, it only took a few generous drinks among friends, just outside Raleigh, to declare that city the State Capital. A Cherry Bounce is a combination of cherry vodka, cranberry juice, and lime juice.Why is Charlotte so famous? ›
Charlotte is known for its banking industry, professional sports teams, and exciting attractions including the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Nearly riding the border between North and South Carolina, Charlotte is the largest city in North Carolina and one of the top 25 largest in the United States.What dessert is Charlotte known for? ›
A charlotte is a type of bread pudding that can be served hot or cold. It is also referred to as an "icebox cake".What is the North Carolina state sandwich? ›
Sweet potatoes, pecan pie, Bojangles Chicken 'n Biscuits, Krispy Kreme, Pepsi-Cola - the list of North Carolina-made products goes on and on.What is the BBQ capital of North Carolina? ›
World-Famous Barbecue, Award-Winning Wines, NASCAR History, Fine Art & Historic Uptown. “The Barbeque Capital of the World”. Let us help you discover the history of the town, places to visit, where to stay, where to eat, and things to do that make Lexington such a special place.What is the barbeque capital of the world NC? ›
The Lexington Barbecue Festival is a one-day food festival held each October in Lexington, North Carolina, the "Barbecue Capital of the World." Each year it attracts as many as 200,000 visitors to the uptown Lexington area to sample the different foods from up to 20 different area restaurants, dozens of visiting food ...What city is famous for its barbecue in NC? ›
The Lexington Barbecue Festival is a one-day festival held each October and attracts 160,000 or more visitors to Lexington, North Carolina. The festival is held each October in uptown Lexington, a city of approximately 20,000 residents.What is the most famous thing in North Carolina? ›
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most visited national parks in the United States and arguably the most famous landmark in North Carolina.What is North Carolina's number 1 attraction? ›
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the top attraction in North Carolina and a must-visit place during your trip. With over 12 million visitors every year, it's the most visited national park in the US. It's located near several major cities, so it's easily accessible.
Why is North Carolina so special? ›
North Carolina offers a mild climate and 300 miles of shoreline. Geographically, the state is divided in three. Its coastal plain is filled with beautiful beaches, including the Outer Banks, where the Wright brothers made the first successful manned flight in history in 1903.Is there a North Carolina cuisine? ›
Smoky ribs, fresh-caught shrimp and plucked-from-the-tree peaches are just a few of the most-iconic treats that await in North Carolina.What food did the Native Americans in NC eat? ›
Some Indigenous foods from our region include favorites like corn or cornbread, beans, squash, greens, field peas, tomatoes, chocolate, chili, sweet potatoes, turnips, pecans, pine nuts, rice, soups, venison, bison, game, fish, and stews.What is North Carolina favorite cookie? ›
The favorite cookie of North Carolina is a classic. Whatever your cookie preference is, chocolate chip cookies are sweet and salty, sugar cookies are buttery and snickerdoodles are spiced with warm spices.What does Sonker mean? ›
He wrote that the word “sonker” descended from a Scottish word for a small, grassy knoll that could be used as a seat, and later was used to describe a straw saddle.What is North Carolina's national drink? ›
The General Assembly adopted milk as the official State Beverage on June 12, 1987. (North Carolina Session Laws, 1987, c. 347).What drink was made in North Carolina? ›
Did you know that Pepsi, Cheerwine and Sun Drop all have roots in North Carolina?What is the fast food capital of North Carolina? ›
Wilmington, North Carolina
There are 93.3 fast food restaurants per 100,000 residents in Wilmington.
Calabash is a small fishing town in Brunswick County, North Carolina, United States. The population was 1,786 at the 2010 census, up from 711 in 2000. It prides itself on being known as the "Seafood Capital of the World" because of the town's seafood restaurants.What is a black fish in North Carolina? ›
The tautog (Tautoga onitis), also known as the blackfish, is a species of wrasse native to the western Atlantic Ocean from Nova Scotia to South Carolina. This species inhabits hard substrate habitats in inshore waters at depths from 1 to 75 m (5 to 245 ft). It is currently the only known member of its genus.
What fish is native to North Carolina? ›
Freshwater species include multiple species of bass, sunfish, and catfish; chain pickerel, pike, muskellunge, white and yellow perch, black crappie, walleye, bowfin, Carolina redhorse, Waccamaw killifish, Roanoke logperch, warmouth, tangerine darter, lake sturgeon, and brook trout, the state's only native salmonid and ...What is Greensboro NC famous for? ›
Long ago, the city of Greensboro was known as a textile town, saturated with mills, factories and blue-collar workers. But today, the city is better known as “Tournament Town” for its wealth of athletic venues – courts, fields, stadiums and even pools.What is the Greensboro Four famous for? ›
On February 1, 1960, four friends sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro. That may not sound like a legendary moment, but it was. The four people were African American, and they sat where African Americans weren't allowed to sit. They did this to take a stand against segregation.What is the triad of NC? ›
The Triad is named for the three largest cities in the region: Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point. The region boasts excellent transportation and educational facilities, making the region a hub for commerce along the mid Atlantic region. There are approximately 900,000 jobs in the Piedmont Triad.What red soda is unique to North Carolina? ›
With a burgundy-red color and cheery disposition, the name "Cheerwine" simply made sense. The taste sensation known as Cheerwine was born. This cherry soda from North Carolina with a bubbly effervescence and one of a kind taste became an instant hit.What soft drink is unique to North Carolina? ›
Cheerwine is a cherry-flavored soft drink by Carolina Beverage Corporation of Salisbury, North Carolina. It has been produced since 1917, claiming to be "the oldest continuing soft drink company still operated by the same family".What is a famous NC soda? ›
Cheerwine. Known as the "Nectar of North Carolina," Cheerwine is a super bubbly soft drink flavored with a hint of wild cherry.Why are Millennials moving to Charlotte? ›
Charlotte is the number one city in the country attracting millennials, because it's one of the largest drivers for financial services.Why is Charlotte the richest? ›
Princess Charlotte has been refered as "the richest kid in the world" due to her status as a member of the British royal family, which is one of the wealthiest and most prominent royal families in the world.Is Charlotte NC considered the South? ›
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the South is composed of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia—and Florida.
What is a charlotte mold? ›
The charlotte mold is a pastry pan with high, slightly flared edges that can be straight or have flutes depending on the model.What is a cold charlotte? ›
For cold charlotte, the mold is lined with ladyfingers (sticks of spongecake) or cookies and filled with ice cream, whipped cream, or most commonly, Bavarian cream. If the latter is used the dessert is called a charlotte russe, a recipe thought to have been originated by French chef Marie-Antonin Carème.Is charlotte a foodie town? ›
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charlotte foodies rejoice because the Queen City was just named among the seven most exciting up-and-coming big cities for food. "We celebrate our picks for the 11 American cities with the most dynamic and emergent food cultures," FOOD & WINE Editor in Chief Hunter Lewis said.What is North Carolina best known for? ›
- Wright Brothers National Memorial.
- Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
- Biltmore Estate & Gardens.
- The Great Smoky Mountains.
- North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
- Grandfather Mountain.
- Chimney Rock.
- Outer Banks.
- Boston Baked Beans.
- Newport Clam Chowder.
- Irish Boiled Dinner (Corned Beef)
- Lobster Stew.
- Boston Cream Pie.
- Brown Bread.
- Anadama Bread.
North Carolina grows more than 21 million pounds of squash and over 144 million pounds of watermelon annually. If you are looking for those crops in North Carolina, start in Cleveland County for squash and Wayne County for watermelon. Those are the top producing counties in North Carolina for these crops.What is unique about North Carolina? ›
North Carolina has the largest Native American population east of the Mississippi. Around 100,000 Native Americans still live in North Carolina today - this is the largest population you'll find to the east of the Mississippi River.What is the most famous North American food? ›
The hamburger is one of North America's most famous dishes. It's essentially a sandwich with one primary staple: a spices-and-herbs-infused patty. Ground beef is the most popular patty option, but you might also see pork, lamb, or chicken burgers.What is North Carolina's signature drink? ›
The Cherry Bounce is North Carolina's signature drink, and for good reason. According to local folklore, it only took a few generous drinks among friends, just outside Raleigh, to declare that city the State Capital. A Cherry Bounce is a combination of cherry vodka, cranberry juice, and lime juice.What is NC State official beverage? ›
The General Assembly adopted milk as the official State Beverage on June 12, 1987. (North Carolina Session Laws, 1987, c.
What is NC number one crop? ›
Crops. Greenhouse and nursery products lead the way in crop agriculture but, tobacco is the state's leading field crop followed by cotton.What does North Carolina produce the most of? ›
North Carolina is a national leader in the production of sweet potatoes, dry beans, tobacco, pigs, broilers (chickens), and turkeys. Other principal agricultural products include eggs, soybeans, and cotton. Farm income tends to be greatest in the central and southern counties of the Coastal Plain.