Hours: Mon-Sat 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
BBQ Jew’s Grade: A+
Porky Says: “Capitol Q indeed, Jones’ place lives up to the hype.”
The Skylight Inn is not the type of restaurant that tries to be everything to everyone. Far from it. Instead, the folks at The Skylight do just a few things but do them as well as any barbecue joint anywhere. The Skylight Inn is still referred to as “Jones’ Barbecue” by many old timers in deference to Pete Jones, who started the place, and the Joneses who have followed in his footsteps. The menu that Pete Jones established when he opened The Skylight in 1947 remains nearly unchanged today. When you set foot in The Skylight Inn your only choices are whether you want a BBQ sandwich or a tray (small, medium or large) and where to sit. The options are limited to barbecue, slaw and skillet cornbread from a 180 year old recipe! You might think it’d be disappointing to not have some variety on the menu, but I think I could make do with Jones’ pork-slaw-cornbread holy trinity most every day and die happy (and probably several years before I otherwise would).
“If I told you the recipe for the slaw, I’d have to shoot you in the head.”
When you visit barbecue joints and talk to the owners and cooks, you get used to the line, “I could tell you the recipe for [insert menu item], but I’d have to kill you.” This is practically a motto for barbecue folks. That said, The Skylight Inn was the first place I heard that line delivered by someone who was prepared to follow through on the statement. I asked Samuel Jones how they cook their hogs and he told me he’d be happy to share, as it’s simply hard work and sticking to tradition rather than any secret. On the other hand, he said, “If I told you the recipe for the slaw, I’d have to shoot you in the head.” Since Samuel had a handgun in his back pocket at the time, I chose not to press my luck. Of course, Samuel is about as nice a guy as you’ll meet so I suspect he wouldn’t actually have shot me in the head… probably just the foot.
Best Barbecue in the World?
The folks at The Skylight seem humble, but they are not afraid to tell you that back in 1979 National Geographic declared them the best barbecue in the world (that article was the reason for the odd-looking wanna be-replica of the U.S. Capitol dome that adorns their roof). Though National Geographic is known more for articles on exotic locales than food writing, they may have been on to something. More than 30 years later The Skylight Inn has to be considered a contender for the title of best barbecue in the world.
You don’t cook some of the best barbecue around by cutting corners. At The Skylight, they use whole hogs that are put on the traditional, oak-fired pits by 4 p.m., where they cook overnight. They are picky about the hogs they use, sticking to 160+ pounders to ensure the proper amount of fat, and always buying from a local hog farmer who they have worked with for decades.
Cooking barbecue the traditional way is not without risk. It takes more time, and it costs more in labor and materials. And then there was the time not too long ago when the roof of one of the large pit buildings behind The Skylight burned down on a particularly windy night when Samuel Jones (also the volunteer fire chief of little Ayden) had sent most of the town’s small fleet of firetrucks to a fire in another part of the county before realizing his own building was ablaze. He laughs about it now, despite the lack of fire insurance on the pits; he figures it’s cheaper to rebuild a roof every 40 or so years than to buy sprinklers and insurance.
But I digress. You probably want to know how the barbecue tastes. It tastes amazing before you even taste it and better still when you do. The pork is hand chopped in large piles in clear view of the counter where you order. The Skylight’s pitmaster douses the pork with vinegar and Texas Pete, inexactly but expertly measured, as he chops. That steaming, moist pile of ‘cue is scooped into trays or onto a sandwich as the orders come in. The food is promptly handed to the customer bythe people who take orders (I’d call them cashiers but the money they handle goes right onto piles on the counter rather than into a cash register, as no such new fangled device exists at The Skylight). The Skylight’s ‘cue is served moderately chopped and contains lots of small flecks of skin and fat, as well as some larger cracklins. In my opinion, it is the perfect consistency and perfect blend between “clean” (i.e., not much gristle and other unwanted bits) and tasty (i.e., some bit help the flavor). The flavor is rich and subtle at the same time, that elusive combination that is present in great NC barbecue. There really is no sauce for divine swine like The Skylight’s, but a peppery vinegar sauce (black pepper is prominent) somehow enhances the flavor just the same.
As for the meat’s accompaniments, The Skylight’s slaw is very finely chopped, quite sweet, and fairly simple. But calling it simple is a compliment, I promise. Maybe I should say it’s concise, if that word can describe a food; it does exactly what it is supposed to do without wasting ingredients. The cornbread is distinct from most you’re likely to have tasted. It’s dense, a bit greasy in a good way, and not at all fluffy. Again, this is a nearly two century old recipe so it’s far from fancy but damn near perfect as a pairing with the ‘cue and slaw. Fountain drinks and tear are available to round out the meal.
Still Being Discovered After All These Years
The Skylight Inn is located in a terrible spot, in terms of drawing customers, by any objective standard. The restaurant sits on a small road in a tiny town, and you could easily drive by without noticing it were it not for the large dome on the roof and the tremendous woodpile beside the place. Oh, and there is a produce stand next door called The Collard Shack (which, as an aside, would be a hell of a name for a restaurant or jazz club or pretty much anything else). But great barbecue joints tend to draw crowds no matter how off the beaten path they are. When I visited on a Saturday there was a big crowd present, and apparently crowds have grown in recent years as the younger Joneses have started, gasp, advertising on TV. Not that The Skylight Inn was exactly under the radar to begin with, as evidenced by the James Beard Award tucked away on the wall and rave reviews by juggernauts like Roadfood.com. Still, Ayden is far enough off the beaten path that it takes some effort to get there, and even many residents of nearby Greenville have never made the trip, if only because they are loyal to hometown B’s Barbecue.
If you can’t make it to The Skylight because of geography, or perhaps because you work at B’s Barbecue and can’t be seen there, The Skylight will come to you. They ship pork anywhere in the country as long as you exceed their five pound minimum order. Of course, that didn’t stop a couple several months ago from flying from Chicago to Greenville, renting a car for the drive to Ayden, eating lunch and then returning home (happy and a bit heavier, perhaps). According to Samuel Jones, most customers drive from outside Pitt County, which is perhaps not surprising given The Skylight’s sterling reputation.
If you’ve made it this far in the review, you’re probably a) painfully hungry and b) wondering why a barbecue place next to a
nondescript field in rural North Carolina is called The Skylight Inn. I can’t help you with a) but I can lend a hand on b). As the legend has it, and as Samuel Jones will attest, here’s the story. Back when Pete Jones opened the place he was just a teenager. What did rural teenagers like to do in those days? Apparently drink beer and fly planes–Pete Jones didn’t yet have a driver’s license but he had a pilot’s one. Pete and his buddies used to fly little planes at the small airstrip behind the restaurant. They also liked to do a little drinking. And sometimes they mixed the two, which probably isn’t a real good idea, but those were different times. Anyway, Pete Jones decided to call the place The Skylight because of the airplanes and airstrip (and maybe, just maybe, because he’d had one too many beers when he picked the name, but that’s just speculation on my part…).