2021’s Best BBQ Cities in America

A black woman extends a container of barbecue to a customer at the Big Apple Barbecue Festival.

There are cities that cook barbecue, and there are barbecue cities. 

The difference is, the latter will make you produce “meat sweat” after eating a ridiculous amount of ’cue. So which are the Best BBQ Cities in America?

To separate the top sirloin from the chuck roast of barbecue scenes, LawnStarter ranked 199 of the biggest U.S. cities based on 14 hallmarks of a true ’cue hub.

What are the key ingredients of the best BBQ city? Award-winning barbecue restaurants and chefs, experience hosting a “master-level” competition, multiple barbecue festivals, and high fan ratings, among others.

See which barbecue cities smoked the competition in our ranking below, followed by some highlights, lowlights, meaty insights from BBQ experts, and a fun look at BBQ By the Numbers. 

Once you’ve learned all about barbecue, you can really light up (your grill) this Fourth of July.

Table of Contents

  1. City Rankings
  2. Highlights and Lowlights
  3. Ask the Experts
  4. Methodology
  5. BBQ By the Numbers and Fun Facts
  6. Red, White, and BBQ

City Rankings 

See how each city fared in our ranking:

OVERALL RANKCityOverall ScoreAccessQualityEvents
1Kansas City, MO60.148313
2Chicago, IL46.463261
3Houston, TX37.513854
4Cincinnati, OH35.885115
5Memphis, TN34.0865401
6Louisville, KY31.4761810
7St. Louis, MO29.8678259
8New York, NY29.2216249
9Minneapolis, MN28.6136359
10Overland Park, KS27.261371016
11Washington, DC27.079525
12Richmond, VA26.4791459
13Denver, CO25.33482316
14Los Angeles, CA25.3012642
15Omaha, NE25.221961316
16Atlanta, GA25.081641711
17Grand Rapids, MI24.641051916
18Austin, TX23.04111640
19Elk Grove, CA23.03264616
20Raleigh, NC22.8787859
21Tulsa, OK22.63141759
22Charlotte, NC22.44803611
23Buffalo, NY22.04228211
24Little Rock, AR21.73903416
25Lubbock, TX21.57331242
26Nashville, TN21.33251442
27Philadelphia, PA21.02298016
28Baltimore, MD21.01595916
29Dallas, TX20.97121942
30Indianapolis, IN20.92189116
31San Francisco, CA20.41451315
32Lincoln, NE19.081756911
33Augusta, GA18.80728616
34Jackson, MS18.64539516
35Honolulu, HI18.6029459
36Boston, MA18.491577416
37Torrance, CA18.3935659
38Orlando, FL18.28372159
39Olathe, KS18.031031559
40Boise, ID17.855510816
41Oakland, CA17.6874159
42Greensboro, NC17.44819816
43Winston-Salem, NC16.771731675
44Corona, CA16.766214416
45St. Petersburg, FL16.57123959
46Birmingham, AL16.4311411716
47Orange, CA16.37173859
48Glendale, CA16.3185359
49Rancho Cucamonga, CA16.18104959
50Fort Collins, CO16.1411912716
51Springfield, MO15.50422859
52Des Moines, IA15.431822059
53Detroit, MI15.3914514016
54Oklahoma City, OK15.291442259
55Jacksonville, FL15.22205359
56Long Beach, CA15.15413359
57Fullerton, CA15.12244759
58Newark, NJ15.09215059
59Sacramento, CA15.08742759
60Aurora, CO15.0616514216
60San Antonio, TX15.061012559
62McAllen, TX15.00493159
63Baton Rouge, LA14.85196259
64Salem, OR14.84582959
65Columbus, OH14.7615517511
66Enterprise, NV14.68543259
67Jersey City, NJ14.55237642
68Huntsville, AL14.3012317916
69Rochester, NY14.16843742
70Paradise, NV14.12413259
71Colorado Springs, CO14.0415317616
72Tempe, AZ13.95316559
73Santa Clarita, CA13.86504459
74Bridgeport, CT13.8511519116
75Fort Lauderdale, FL13.74287259
76Tallahassee, FL13.64148459
77Henderson, NV13.6214318616
78Midland, TX13.60475759
79Salt Lake City, UT13.451044242
80Durham, NC13.32824842
80Killeen, TX13.32754359
82Corpus Christi, TX13.181493059
83Arlington, VA12.96675359
84Anaheim, CA12.93685059
85Fayetteville, NC12.82566459
86Cleveland, OH12.76308159
87Seattle, WA12.63974559
88Norfolk, VA12.591117739
89Fort Worth, TX12.47576759
90Savannah, GA12.46527359
91Providence, RI12.431593559
92Irvine, CA12.15866059
93Shreveport, LA12.09607559
94Arlington, TX11.92936159
95Pasadena, CA11.91468359
96Garden Grove, CA11.831312159
97Las Vegas, NV11.711516640
98Portland, OR11.63448559
99Santa Ana, CA11.52897159
100Pittsburgh, PA11.381006859
101Laredo, TX11.111246659
102Reno, NV10.971747042
103Sunnyvale, CA10.733411459
104Miami, FL10.55768859
105Scottsdale, AZ10.511916359
106Mesa, AZ10.491995859
107Stockton, CA10.294011359
108Chattanooga, TN10.014311959
109Lexington, KY9.98889059
110Ontario, CA9.893913059
111Milwaukee, WI9.791567859
112Chesapeake, VA9.606310559
113San Jose, CA9.501707959
113Port St. Lucie, FL9.501298759
115Dayton, OH9.401348959
116Mesquite, TX9.303515959
117Albuquerque, NM9.131359259
117North Las Vegas, NV9.136412859
119Irving, TX9.117311859
120Santa Rosa, CA9.041389359
121Joliet, IL8.841099959
122Murfreesboro, TN8.839510659
123Tampa, FL8.797014942
124Frisco, TX8.757712959
125Pomona, CA8.736114359
126New Orleans, LA8.687115242
127Cary, NC8.621789742
128Salinas, CA8.5910610759
129Spring Valley, NV8.586913759
130Hollywood, FL8.422719259
131Escondido, CA8.3912810059
132Sioux Falls, SD8.3113610059
133Bellevue, WA8.2710712559
134Naperville, IL8.2610214842
135Metairie, LA8.2312211559
136Oceanside, CA8.2213910459
136Spokane, WA8.2212611059
138Worcester, MA8.191609659
139Mobile, AL8.187914559
140McKinney, TX8.1011812459
141Hayward, CA8.069214059
142Oxnard, CA8.0412012659
143Wichita, KS8.0212712059
144Knoxville, TN8.0013311659
145Alexandria, VA7.8916810059
145Sunrise Manor, NV7.8913012259
147St. Paul, MN7.8616910059
148Syracuse, NY7.836616559
149Clarksville, TN7.8216613242
150Fremont, CA7.819414759
151Bakersfield, CA7.7511313759
152Glendale, AZ7.6511713759
153Virginia Beach, VA7.5318110859
154Lancaster, CA7.509915059
155Plano, TX7.4916112259
156Fresno, CA7.4714213559
157Palmdale, CA7.4518611059
158Tucson, AZ7.4414013659
159Huntington Beach, CA7.3914715642
160Moreno Valley, CA7.295118659
160San Diego, CA7.2919211259
162Riverside, CA7.279616159
163Peoria, AZ7.1616313459
164Montgomery, AL7.1014614659
165Miramar, FL7.079816759
166Grand Prairie, TX7.0411216159
167Eugene, OR6.9010816759
168Pembroke Pines, FL6.8711016759
169Tacoma, WA6.6212516759
170Thornton, CO6.5615016359
171Pasadena, TX6.5115215759
172Brownsville, TX6.418518559
172Modesto, CA6.4111617759
174San Bernardino, CA6.3418315059
175Phoenix, AZ6.3016216059
176Chandler, AZ6.2917615359
177Chula Vista, CA6.2617915359
178Toledo, OH6.2418015359
179Gilbert, AZ6.1917215759
180Hialeah, FL6.0114817859
181Springfield, MA5.8518516759
182Newport News, VA5.8019416459
183Madison, WI5.6918418442
184Cape Coral, FL5.6618817459
185Fontana, CA5.6519516759
186Paterson, NJ5.6415118159
187Fort Wayne, IN5.5515818059
188Macon, GA5.3913119359
189Yonkers, NY5.2117118359
190Lakewood, CO5.1416718659
191Vancouver, WA5.0918718159
192Rockford, IL4.8319018659
193El Paso, TX4.5819719059
194Garland, TX4.4915419659
195Anchorage, AK4.2219319459
196Columbus, GA4.1418919559
197Amarillo, TX3.9113219759
198Akron, OH3.8317719842
199Aurora, IL0.0519819959
best barbecue cities infographic

Highlights and Lowlights

Kansas City: The BBQ Capital of America

Sorry, Memphis. Kansas City tops our list of the Best BBQ Cities. With far more winners in the World Series of Barbecue contests and the second-highest number of national excellence awards, the Heart of America is a powerhouse for quality brisket and burnt ends. 

But every leader has an Achilles heel and KC’s ironically is access to BBQ restaurants, finishing at No. 108. Fortunately, iconic names — Gates, Jack Stack, Joe’s KC, and Arthur Bryant — more than make up for the lack of BBQ spots. Quality over quantity appears to be this city’s barbecue philosophy. 

Mouthwatering Midwest

Beyond Kansas City, seven more Midwestern cities place in our top 10. Clearly, the Midwest is best for premier steaks, strips, and stacks.

Chicago comes in second by jointly claiming the top spot in the Events category (an honor it shares with No. 5 Memphis, another iconic barbecue city). Seventh-place St. Louis holds the second-highest score in the Quality category, followed closely by Minneapolis, which lands in ninth. Cincinnati is No. 4.

If you’re looking for a foodie vacation, fly to the Midwest and start eating your way across the region. (Barbecue road trips are a real thing. Make sure to bring plenty of Wet-Naps.)

Nibbling in North Carolina

North Carolina makes a mediocre showing despite making up one of the four pillars of American barbecue styles — KC, Memphis, Texas, and Carolina. Raleigh finishes at No. 20, but other Tar Heel cities land farther down the list. (South Carolina has its own related but distinct style, but none of its cities was large enough to be measured in our ranking.)

Why didn’t North Carolina’s signature sauce rank higher? Maybe it’s because North Carolina ’cue culture is spread out in the state rather than concentrated in one area like Kansas City or Memphis. (Texas, too, was a mixed bag in our ranking.)

North Carolina, while not the best ranked, is still a destination for those who prefer a hint of tang and a kick of vinegar. (Just don’t get caught up in the East vs. West debate.)

Ask The Experts

Why is BBQ our favorite grilled, smoked, rubbed, and/or sauced food, much like baseball is America’s favorite pastime? Let’s cue the experts, for answers about our love of barbecue and BBQ cities.

  1. What makes a true barbecue city for aficionados?
  2. Which non-iconic BBQ cities, if any, can fans expect to emerge in the national barbecue scene in the next few years? What makes those cities stand out?
  3. What are some non-traditional barbecue dishes (such as BBQ tacos) that every serious fan must try?
  4. What are some fresh barbecue side-dish ideas to try this Fourth of July?
  5. Barbecue vs. barbeque: Apart from spelling, is there a difference?
  6. Besides visiting the top BBQ cities in the country, what’s the best way to discover one’s favorite style of ’cue?

Dr. Carola Grebitus
Associate Professor of Food Industry Management, W. P. Carey School of Business, Morrison School of Agribusiness
Tyler White
Culinary Institute Program Manager
Jeffrey Miller
Certified Executive Chef, Associate Professor, Hospitality Management, Food Science and Human Nutrition
Dr. Carola Grebitus
Associate Professor of Food Industry Management, W. P. Carey School of Business, Morrison School of Agribusiness
Arizona State University

What makes a true barbecue city for aficionados?

A city that offers fresh and local ingredients to shoppers, providing high-quality meat to customers, as well as high-quality ingredients for side dishes.

Equipment is, of course, just as important, and places where the community can gather. Barbecuing next to a community garden where you can pick some fresh veggies to put on the grill — what can be better?

Which non-iconic BBQ cities, if any, can fans expect to emerge in the national barbecue scene in the next few years? What makes those cities stand out?

The Phoenix metro area offers great variety with fresh and local ingredients putting a spin on things with unique flavor, such as prickly pear.

What are some non-traditional barbecue dishes (such as BBQ tacos) that every serious fan must try?

  • Being from Germany, I would go with some German-style brats that will taste delicious if made on a charcoal grill. Simply pair it with a bun and some mustard, or go all out by adding German-style potato salad. You can find original brats at Trader Joe’s or Aldi.
  • Wrap small sausages in bacon, and grill them until crisp (if you can find cheese-filled sausages, all the better).

Meatless alternatives:

  • Fish packs: Fish of choice (e.g., salmon), add spices or fresh herbs to taste, top it with some butter, wrap in foil, and grill until tender.
  • Tofu packs: Same as fish packs but with tofu

What are some fresh barbecue side-dish ideas to try this Fourth of July?

  • Veggie packs: Cut up your favorite produce (think bell peppers, tomatoes, squash), add some spices/herbs and butter, wrap in foil, and grill until tender.
  • Stuffed mushrooms: Prepare butter spread (mix well soft Irish butter, parsley, garlic, onion, pepper, salt, paprika powder, Worcestershire sauce — all to taste), remove stems from mushrooms and fill with butter, and grill until butter has melted.
  • Grilled bread: Make butter spread, get a big loaf of white bread with a nice crust (think oversized baguette), cut the whole bread in slices (cut about two-thirds through, leaving the bottom of the bread intact), slather on the spread in between the slices, wrap in foil, and grill until butter has melted and bread is crisp and toasty.

Barbecue vs. barbeque: Apart from spelling, is there a difference?

As a German native, I would say no.

Besides visiting the top BBQ cities in the country, what’s the best way to discover one’s favorite style of ’cue?

Gather family and friends for a cookout, and enjoy spending time together while indulging in great food.

Tyler White
Culinary Institute Program Manager
University of Tennessee Knoxville

What makes a true barbecue city for aficionados?

Authenticity and history are key components in identifying a true barbecue city. Aficionados should look for cities and regions that have a history of great pitmasters and family-owned businesses. The best barbeque cities have plenty of independently owned barbeque restaurants.

What are some non-traditional barbecue dishes (such as BBQ tacos) that every serious fan must try?

  • Barbeque breakfast hash is a great way to incorporate barbeque into every meal of the day.
  • Barbeque tamales are an amazing way to combine smoked meats, masa, and your favorite sauce and cheese.

What are some fresh barbecue side-dish ideas to try this Fourth of July?

Summer vegetable salads pair perfectly with barbeque. It is easy to create salads with just about any type of vegetable or greens, and using a vinaigrette dressing, you can complement the sweet flavors that are associated with many barbeque seasonings and sauces. This is why you traditionally see coleslaw as a staple side with barbeque.

Barbecue vs. barbeque: Apart from spelling, is there a difference?

There is no difference in the cooking techniques for either version of the word “barbeque/ barbecue.” The spelling of the word is more related to the region you live in, similar to debate over “pop or soda.”

There is, however, a difference in how the word is used. Many will use the term “barbeque” as a gathering of friends for a meal that consists of various grilled items, whereas the verb meaning of “barbeque” relates to the actual cooking process of foods.

Many people use “grilling” and “barbequing” interchangeably, but that is incorrect — grilling is a fast cooking technique that uses more direct heat, and barbequing uses slow and low indirect cooking.

Besides visiting the top BBQ cities in the country, what’s the best way to discover one’s favorite style of ’cue?

A great way to discover your favorite style of barbeque without traveling is to cook barbeque yourself! Smokers are easily accessible now, and the internet is full of recipes to guide you on your barbeque adventure.

Try cooking with different woods, cuts of meats, marinades, rubs, and sauces to determine what works best for your palate. Many of the best barbeque restaurants started off with someone creating a great barbecue item at home and then turning it into a business.

Jeffrey Miller
Certified Executive Chef, Associate Professor, Hospitality Management, Food Science and Human Nutrition
Colorado State University

What makes a true barbecue city for aficionados?

A true barbecue city has a respect for the traditions. BBQ is an old and honorable art. Serious BBQ people want pitmasters who understand what it takes to make the classics correctly; pitmasters who are willing to spend the time to do it right — there is no “hurry up” shortcut to great BBQ.

A city also needs a critical mass of people who love BBQ. I’ve seen some great barbecue joints close because the locals didn’t support it with their wallets.

Which non-iconic BBQ cities, if any, can fans expect to emerge in the national barbecue scene in the next few years? What makes those cities stand out?

It is really more regions that are coming on than individual towns. BBQ has always been associated with the South in general, the Carolinas and Texas, and few great cities like Memphis and Kansas City.

But great BBQ can be had in a lot of places now. Some great BBQ is coming out of the Midwest. Oklahoma has always had a great BBQ tradition that is just now getting recognized. The whole belt across southern Kansas, southern Missouri, northern Oklahoma, and northern Arkansas is growing great BBQ traditions.

What are some non-traditional barbecue dishes (such as BBQ tacos) that every serious fan must try?

While the classics are hard to beat, there are a few outliers to try:

  • If a place has a bologna sandwich on the menu, try it. There is some great BBQ bologna in Oklahoma.
  • BBQ corned beef can be really good.
  • I wish there was more BBQ lamb. The place I miss the most is the late, lamented Prospect BBQ in Kansas City. They had BBQ lamb shanks and lamb riblets that I still dream about.

What are some fresh barbecue side-dish ideas to try this Fourth of July?

  • Anything with dark leafy greens like collards: They pair perfectly with the smoke of real BBQ.
  • Try some really sweet watermelon with feta cheese crumbles. You can never go wrong with sweet and salty.
  • Hawaiian-style mac salad is always great with ribs.

Barbecue vs. barbeque: Apart from spelling, is there a difference?

It’s not the spelling; it’s the process. A steak on the grill is a treat, but it’s not BBQ. Low and slow wins the race.

Besides visiting the top BBQ cities in the country, what’s the best way to discover one’s favorite style of ’cue?

One thing the pandemic did was blow food delivery wide open. You can order BBQ from nearly anywhere. You can enjoy most of the great BBQ styles of America from the comfort of your own patio.

Methodology

We ranked 199 of the largest U.S. cities from best (No. 1) to worst (No. 199) based on their overall scores (out of 100 possible points), averaged across the weighted metrics below.

NBBQA and KCBS competition data for suburbs were included with the main city in their metro area if those suburbs were not large enough to be included in our sample. 

Metric NameWeightingMin. ValueMax. ValueBest
Access
BBQ Restaurants per 100,000 Residents20.6733.24Max. Value
Number of Top-Rated BBQ Restaurants (Avg. Rating: Over 4.5/5 Stars)3014Max. Value
Smokehouses per 100,000 Residents101.57Max. Value
Number of Top-Rated Smokehouses (Avg. Rating: Over 4.5/5 Stars)202Max. Value
Quality
Number of NBBQA Excellence Award Winners (Sauce, Rub, and/or Food Categories) in Past 5 Years4013Max. Value
Number of Cooking Teams Ranking in Top 25% of Past 3 American Royal World Series of Barbecue Invitational Contests405Max. Value
Number of Cooking Teams Ranking in Top 26-50% of Past 3 American Royal World Series of Barbecue Invitational Contests3011Max. Value
Number of Cooking Teams Ranking in Top 25% of Past 3 American Royal World Series of Barbecue Open Contests3028Max. Value
Number of Cooking Teams Ranking in Top 26-50% of Past 3 American Royal World Series of Barbecue Open Contests2049Max. Value
Median Consumer Rating for BBQ Restaurants304.4Max. Value
Median Consumer Rating for Smokehouses205Max. Value
Events
Hosts KCBS-Sanctioned National/Global Barbecue Competition (1 = Yes, 0 = No)401Max. Value
Hosted KCBS-Sanctioned Masters Series BBQ Competition(s) in Past 3 Years (1 = Yes, 0 = No)301Max. Value
Number of BBQ Festivals104Max. Value

Sources: American Royal Association, Everfest, Kansas City Barbeque Society, National Barbecue and Grilling Association, and Yelp

BBQ By the Numbers and Fun Facts

Infographic showing barbecue facts for the Best BBQ Cities ranking

More BBQ Fun Facts

Infographic sources: Foodways in Focus, Guinness World Records, Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, Kansas City Barbecue Society, National Today, Slate, and Statista

Red, White, and BBQ

Barbecue is one of America’s most sacred culinary traditions — so renowned that chefs from all over the globe make pilgrimages to our pitmasters to share their tasty creations and ideas.

How serious is our love of ’cue? In our No. 1 BBQ city, you can sample burnt ends-flavored ice cream at local Betty Rae’s.

It’s clear Americans love tasty, messy, meaty barbecue off the grill, out of the smoker, and maybe even as a creamy concoction.

Wherever you celebrate barbecue this Fourth of July — in your backyard or at family cookouts, block parties, and festivals — savor that mouth-watering barbecue and a return to near normalcy after a year of being holed up inside.

We need some BBQ this year — fast. Save some room and have plenty of napkins nearby (or a bib). 

Main Photo Credit: www.shutterstock.com

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Staff Writer