Skylight Inn BBQ - Atlas Obscura

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Skylight Inn BBQ

Ayden, North Carolina

This family-run joint has been going whole hog for nearly 100 years. 

Sponsored by Visit North Carolina

While the sign outside may read “Skylight Inn BBQ,” for longtime residents, this institution will always be known as Pete Jones’. The restaurant’s namesake founder built the place with his brother in 1946 at the age of 17. It would open one year later as Skylight Inn, though as Jones told the News and Record in 1985, he’s not sure why, “We never had a skylight,” he recalled. But skylight or not, the place earned quite the reputation.

The family has traced their barbecue heritage in the area to 1830. His great-great grandfather, Skilton Dennis, made barbecue for local Baptist churches, and later set up his own spot in town. Then Skilton’s son Bill took over the business, and then Bill’s sons, Emmett and John, were at the helm. Emmett and John, Pete’s uncles, took young Pete under their wing in 1935 when he was seven. By the time Pete was a teenager, he was ready to carry on the family business in his own spot. 

According to Pete, for barbecue to be right, there had to be rules. Luckily, Pete only had two: it needed to be cooked over wood and it had to be the whole hog. “The nose is the barb, and the tail is the Q,” he told the News and Record. He stuck by those sentiments, meaning little changed at the Skylight Inn over the years. He did add a full dining room in 1985, which meant that more people could fit inside  (“I just felt like I owed it to my customers,” Pete said.). A GQ reporter who visited the Skylight in 2006, had been once before 15 years earlier, and wrote with satisfaction on his return, “Almost nothing had changed.”

These days, things are pretty much as they used to be. Though Pete died in 2006, the restaurant is still in the family under the helm of Pete’s son Bruce and two other family members. The menu has some slight changes. There’s chicken there now, an addition to the past’s pork-heavy offerings. But its elaborate rooftop decoration—a model of the Capitol building in D.C.— has remained, a nod to a National Geographic article that declared the restaurant the barbecue capital of the world. And the pork still holds on to its North Carolina roots, finished off with a vinegar-based sauce. 

Over the years, the Skylight has only added to its reputation— both at home and across the country. The restaurant has been featured on countless TV shows and best-of lists, including the Food Network, Southern Living, and Peoplemagazine. In 2003, it received a James Beard award as one of four “Americas Classics.” Sam Jones, Pete’s grandson who has continued the family tradition with his own restaurants in Winterville and Raleigh, knows that the Skyline’s legacy is something that can never be taken for granted. As he told The News and Observer in 2021, “It’s a damn diamond.”

Know Before You Go

Open Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.  Closed Sunday. The restaurant is cash only.

This post is sponsored by Visit North Carolina. Click here to explore more. 

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