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Venue Review: The Pit Authentic Barbecue

Pitmaster goes upscale
The Pit Authentic Barbecue
By "By Greg Cox, The News & Observer"

Ed Mitchell is acknowledged as a premier practitioner of the ancient (some say dying) art of Eastern North Carolina-style barbecue. His restaurant in Wilson, one of the few to serve whole hog barbecue slow-cooked the old-fashioned way over seasoned hardwood, was legendary. It closed three years ago, to aficionados' dismay. Mitchell is, you might say, the embodiment of tradition.

Developer Greg Hatem, on the other hand, has his eye on the future -- albeit a future that incorporates the best parts of the past, adapting them when necessary to preserve them. Hatem has restored numerous historic buildings in downtown Raleigh, transforming some into homes for restaurants such as The Duck & Dumpling and The Raleigh Times Bar. When Hatem announced that he and Mitchell were teaming up to open a restaurant, you could bet it wouldn't be just another barbecue joint.

It isn't, though Mitchell's sublime Eastern-style 'cue is unquestionably the prime attraction at The Pit, which opened in November in the building that formerly housed Nana's Chophouse (and, fittingly enough, was originally a meatpacking plant). Succulent and smoky (but not too smoky), chopped fine (but not too fine), punctuated by crunchy bits of crackling and sprinkled with just enough peppery vinegar sauce to accent its porky essence, this is surely one of God's best reasons for putting pigs on the planet. What's more, it's made exclusively with free-range, hormone-free pigs, making it as good for the soul as it is for the palate.

But the menu goes far beyond traditional 'cue shack offerings. From the wood-fired pit at the back of the restaurant, Mitchell and his brother, Aubrey (who shares pitmaster duties), turn out a sampling of smoky fare from across the Sun Belt. Their rendition of Western Carolina pulled pork shoulder is more than respectable (although, having grown up within a hushpuppy's throw of Lexington, I must point out that nobody in that mecca of Western-style barbecue would recognize The Pit's thick, sweet version of their beloved "dip"). Texas-style brisket was chewy and dry when I sampled it, presumably because the born-and-raised pork man is still in the learning curve working with beef. But Mitchell appears to have gotten the hang of pork ribs. Disappointingly dry the first time I sampled them, they rated much higher on the lip-smacking scale the second time around.

Chef Ryan Jacobson is fulfilling the other half of Hatem's vision of combining the best of Old South and New. Working with fresh ingredients, many raised by local farmers, Jacobson offers a mix of traditional and contemporary Southern fare. The chef does the Mitchells' mother proud with a first-rate rendering of her recipe for fried chicken. And he lets his creativity run with dishes such as crispy fried tilapia over cilantro rice and a roasted half chicken served over a ragout of white beans, tasso ham and rosemary.

An appetizer pairing beer- and cumin-steamed shrimp with an overpoweringly sweet "BBQ sauce" misses the mark. But a variation on the BLT that serves up house-cured bacon, lettuce, tomato and garlic aioli on fluffy biscuits, hits the bull's-eye.

Waitresses don't call you "sugar," but service is friendly, and unusually well-trained for a new establishment. The contemporary decor aims for a higher target than the traditional barbecue restaurant, though it's still a work in progress. And it's a safe bet you've never seen a barbecue joint with such a well-stocked bar as The Pit's, whose highlights include small batch bourbons and an excellent draft beer selection.

The Pit preserves one more barbecue joint tradition. It offers whole hog catering -- currently in the restaurant's private dining rooms, but soon to be available off premises. I've got dibs on July 4.

Reviews & Comments
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Feb. 1, 2008 - Triangle.com - By Greg Cox, The News & Observer

Ed Mitchell is acknowledged as a premier practitioner of the ancient (some say dying) art of Eastern North Carolina-style barbecue. His restaurant in Wilson, one of the few to serve whole hog barbecue slow-cooked the old-fashioned way over seasoned hardwood, was legendary. It closed three years ago, to aficionados' dismay. Mitchell is, you might say, the embodiment of tradition.

(Full review)
(no rating) Aug 08, 2010 - mrholmes19

The table was filthy the service was awful..other than that it was Local..yuck. They put vinegar on the food it was hideous and acidic!

Apr 29, 2010 - wmgray
BBQ on Sunday AND beer? Sign me up.

To save you time: if you don't like Eastern NC vinegar-based sauce, or your husband drinks chardonnays with his bbq, you're probably not going to like The Pit (or any other bbq restaurant that banks its reputation on Eastern NC bbq...just sayin').

If, however, you're in the other portion of the population, The Pit is the best thing to hit Raleigh in years. You pay a small premium for a moderately upscale restaurant with a great bar, but not a lot. $12-13 for a nice plate of bbq with a couple of sides and a great selection of beer in bottles and draft keeps me coming back. I can't argue that the portions could be larger, hence a 1/2 star deduction, but frankly they fill me up about right.

I've been 8-10 times and service has been reasonable to great, both at the bar and at tables. I guess any restaurant that survived the recession and is constantly packed is doing something right.

The fact that Ed whooped Bobby Flay in a rib throwdown is the icing on the cake!

Jan 28, 2010 - ericf123058

Aug 11, 2009 - djackino
The Pits

BBQ does not need to go upscale. The measly servings, high prices, "cafeteria warmer" comments and questionable/rude service mentioned here and especially over at tripadvisor are all true. I won't be back. There are plenty of "holes in wall" where you can get these food items for a lot less and get a real portion, not some fru-fru serving.

For $20, I got 2 strips of beef brisket, a small portion of BBQ, and 2 small side servings. The bartender (we had to sit at the bar - a bar in a BBQ joint?) was uncaring when I complained about the serving sizes. All of these were average tasting. I then had to ask for hushpuppies, which were tough and were in a small basket. Oh, excuse me, we are paying for the "ambiance!"

The Pit is owned by a corporation that owns several other places in the area. That should be your first clue about this place - basically they are renting Ed's name for marketing.

Jun 07, 2009 - martini
The Pit "is the pits"

Went today for the first time. I will NOT go back and do not recommend to anyone. The service is horrible, never got to the food. My family was seated outside, beautiful day. The table had cigarette butts with ashes and dried food stuck to it. The waiter came to place napkins and silverware and I asked for a towel to wipe off table and his response was well you picked the dirtiest table here. Just so you know, I moved twice because the tables were so dirty. Before leaving I asked to speak to manager, I explained the situation to him, while speaking to him I was watching the sweat run off his face. Yuck! ! He just offered a table inside, this was his only response. No, Thanks. Honestly, I will be making a phone call to the health department. If the service is this bad, and the tables were this dirty, I can not imagine the food, or what the kitchen looks like. NO, Thanks!!!

Oct 24, 2008 - jtkenned
truly authentic

i expect all new restaurants to take a while to get things revved up and gain consistency. so i expected some of the early mixed reviews especially if you don't truly understand eastern NC bbq. but Ed and crew seem to be getting things just right now. the pork, both shoulder and chopped, was great. the ribs weren't too bad either. delicious sides. service was pretty good. we met Ed, the pit master. very authentic and a kind soul. you'll feel good when you leave here.

Jun 03, 2008 - elynnn
If you love Vinegar

If you like vinegar on everything from the BBQ to the mac and cheese...(I am not kidding) then you will love the Pit... the food was a big disappointment...the BBQ was drenched in vinegar and I was full of disappointed when I tasted the mac and cheese that also had the same vinegar taste...the candied yams were dry and the sweet tea was shameful...they call themselves a BBQ Pit??? I beg to differ...It is not worth the money...I guess you are paying for the ambiance, but give me a hole in the wall restaraunt any time if it means my food will be delicious...

May 08, 2008 - rreyom
Big Regrets

I had problems locating The Pit and called to get directions. The hostess answering the telephone made me feel as if I was inconveniencing her for requesting this information. Her instructions weren't very clear, but I ended the call as I felt that if I drove Davie St long enough, eventually I would find it. Well, I didn't. I called back and got the same rude hostess. When I told her exactly where I was on Davis St., she didn't seem to know how to instruct me from that point. I asked her to give me a landmark to help me locate the restaurant and she snapped "we're where we've always been." When I told her that if I knew where you've always been, I wouldn't be asking for directions, she repeated "well, we are where we've always been, I don't know what else to tell you." Needless to say, I was completely taken aback by this response. I thought, is this the type of service the recipients of my gift card should expect to receive?
Normally, I would have taken my business elsewhere, but since I had spent so much time and energy locating "The Pit" and since I thought this would still be a unique gift, I (against my better judgment) bit the bullet and decided to proceed with my gift card purchase. When I entered, I confirmed that the young lady at the hostess stand was indeed the person I had spoken with and I asked to speak with her manager. The general manager appeared and after I explained what I had encountered when I contacted his establishment, he proceeded to make me feel as if "I" was the one who was probably being unreasonable. Why else would he rave about this particular hostess' wonderful customer service record, her experience providing directions, and the fact that she has had no prior customer complaints? Way to go GM! I received what I perceived to be an insincere apology (but an apology nonetheless) and instructions to let my gift recipients know that if they have any problems to ask for the GM.
I left The Pit, gift card in hand, and kicked myself the rest of the evening for not doing an about face and taking my business elsewhere. I sincerely hope that the recipients of my gift have a much better experience than I did. If the food is anything like the service, The Pit won't be around very long.

Feb 11, 2008 - elizabethgw
Better with age

I have eaten at the PIt four times in the past two months. Each time it gets better. The fried chicken is outstanding. The mac n cheese is delicious. The bbq is better than most places you will find in eastern North Carolina, and that is saying a lot! The bartenders are friendly. I have had a few service issues, mostly in waiting for my server to arrive to take drink orders. I chalked that up to it being a new restaurant. And since it is a restaurant, the N&O reviewed it very early, well before most other restaurants are reviewed.

Feb 10, 2008 - carolynobrien
this place won't last

Bartender .. rude. My husband asked for several mainstream beers on tap, only to have the bartender shake his head impatiently -- "Don't have that, don't have that either, etc." The young woman sitting next to us at the bar laughed. "Try asking what they DO have on tap." The bartender again shook his head again. Nothing? Nope. Again, the young lady laughed because she'd been through the same drill with him. Bartender shoved a beer menu across the bar at us and walked away. My husband ordered a chardonnay. I ordered cabernet. We dine at nice restaurants all over the country so aren't strangers to small portions, but these wine glasses were about 1/8 full, if that. I asked, laughing, if he'd like to pour another thimbleful into my glass. Again, the impatient headshake. "This is how we do it in the city." The young woman burst out laughing again. She was waiting for friends to join her, "so we can go somewhere else that wants our business," she said. We were finally seated at a table (we had reservations and even with many empty tables, it took them over 20 minutes to seat the three of us). Muffins were dry, cold, and fell into crumbles when I tried to slice one. Biscuits were gummy in the middle. I ended up with a bread plate of breadcrumbs and mush. We ordered turkey BBQ, regular BBQ, and pulled shoulder. The BBQ was okay, but the sides were tasteless. How does one mess up mashed potatoes and gravy? The potatoes were lumpy -- normally not a bad thing, but a lump the size of a lime is a bit too large. We are not salt users, but the sides needed something to spice them up. So guess what ... there was NO salt on the table, just pepper and lots of BBQ sauce. We used lots of BBQ sauce on everything. We declined dessert, and the waiter's reaction was, "Aw, c'mon now. Ya gotta have dessert." Another pass by the table and he asked, "Are y'all sure you don't want dessert?"

Nope, we won't be going back and, judging by the reactions of some of the people around us, neither will they.

Feb 09, 2008 - jhudgins
The Pit was the PITS!

Just returned from what will be the ONE AND ONLY time I, or anyone else we were with eat here! Made a reservation on Tuesday for Friday at 7 based on the extensive article in the News and Observer. Party of 6 and 1 child arrived at 6:55. Was told by the vapid gaggle of hostesses that we should wait over to the side and they would be right with us. 7:10...still standing...7:20...still standing as reservation after reservation was seated. When asked why they just sat a party of 7 with three children as soon as they entered, I was told " Well we have a lot of reservations tonight and sometimes people just take longer to eat and leave the tables" The 7 top the previous group was seated at was ready and waiting when we arrived! The other party even had a 7:15pm reservation. Not so much as an "I'm sorry" out of the hostess trio. 7:25 finally seated. Placed drink orders with the server of Sweet Teas and Diet Cokes. Server dissapears...5 min. later she returns with the news that they are out of Diet Coke. Nope...nothing diet available at all. (Hello...it's Friday night in mid service and you're out of all diet sodas?) 20 min in and we finally get biscuits...25 min in and the childs dinner arrives but still no drink for the child has arrived. Entre's arrive...BBQ chicken was dry (2 had that) Ribs were dry and tasteless ( 3 had those) Mashed Potato sides were not edible, other sides were bland and tasteless. 1 person made the mistake of ordering desert which took an unbelieveable 20 minutes to come to the table (It was just the Brownie ala mode for heavens sake) It too was dry as a cracker. And to top off the insulting service and poor food, an automatic tip was added to each bill for tables of 6 or more. Well have MERCY! I guess they felt it was the only way to get any tip at all. This was NOT the Ed Mitchell experience expected. The warmth and good food of what he had in Wilson is replaced with snotty workers, slow service and poor food. No one from our party will return there. I expect it won't last as a local eatery for any length of time. And to top it all off...the wrapper of the mints at the door was the only thing to say "Thank You" in the entire place. Has downtown Raleigh really gotten so stuck up that we can't even get a BBQ place right? Maybe I was on a secret episode of Hells Kitchen. I can't figure it out, and don't plan on spending much time trying to figure it out. When it sucks...it sucks!

Feb 06, 2008 - SubwayScoundrel
Pretty Good

I ate at the Pit about 3 weeks ago and I thought the Ribs were very good. I got a couple of sides and they were good but a little different than you might get at some down home place in small town eastern NC. I think that is what confuses people. They pay more but sometimes want the basic grub you get at a roadside place on the way to the beach. The Pit is a little more upscale but so is everything else in DT Raleigh. I talked to Mr. Mitchell and he was very informative.

I have business contacts come to Raleigh and they often say "take us to some place local". Of course, they don't mean some run down Q joint with checkerboard table clothes and some waitress that calls them “Honey”, but a place where you can have a business meal with local ties and local tastes that one can order wine, beer or spirits. I once took them to 42st OB but never again. The Pit may be that place.

I do think they were working out some kinks but that will come around. I did order the Brunswick stew as a app. It was different than Smithfield’s or Parkers and was more of a soup but it was good. Maybe a little more spice would have been better but there were sauces to help that along.

If you want green bean casserole like your mom makes at the July 4th picnic and nothing else matters, maybe you should go someplace else, but if you want something a little more refined that keeps the NC BBQ tradition alive, give it a try.

Just don’t expect cheap décor, a plastic glass full of sweet tea and a 3 section plastic plate.

Feb 01, 2008 - nholpp
Not Likely To Go Back

I went for lunch today with some friends and the place was half full. We thought this would assure good service, we were wrong. I did not get what I ordered, how I ordered it, but didn't send it back because it took so long to get it the first time I didn't think I had the time to wait for them to fix it. The meat was extremely skimpy on the sandwich and covered in the sauce I asked not to be put on it. Mostly they sent out a lettuce and tomato sandwich with a little slice of bacon stuck somewhere in the middle in a little lump, on greasy slices of toast. It took a while to get the checks brought to us, and even longer for the cards and cash to run thru and be returned. The other girls had a few minor problems with the food quality. Maybe lunch just isn’t this places forte. I was greatly disappointed with the food and the service.

Jan 15, 2008 - bcain
Everything was fantastic

Just went this past weekend and tried the pulled pork, chopped pork, Baby Back ribs and Carolina ribs (spare ribs). Everything was delicious, especially the Baby Back Ribs, which were a bit spicy. They were the best ribs I've ever eaten, and the sauces available were perfect. All the sides we tried were also great - mac & cheese, collard greens, steamed cabbage, yams. Also loved the biscuits. Anxious to go back and try some of the appetizers and the turkey barbecue. The setting was nice, with lots of attention to details. Mitchell came by each table to make sure the food was good - very nice touch. Highly recommend this if you like barbecue at all.

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