Given the modest piece of real estate it occupies in the shadows of some of downtown Raleigh’s sparkling new office towers, Clyde Cooper’s BBQ’s continued existence is noteworthy. And the location in the heart of downtown gives Cooper’s a better excuse for not cooking over wood coals than most joints have. Between Cooper’s location and history–the joint has existed since 1938, and founder Clyde Cooper lived from 1899 to 1998–I really want to like it. Yet I have eaten there several times over the years and found it mediocre at best. Because new owners took over Cooper’s late last year, I decided to give it another try.
The good news is that the current owners wisely kept Cooper’s old time atmosphere, thick and authentic, intact. (The NC license plate on the wall that reads “Soieee!” is a nice, I think new, touch). The bad news is the current owners kept the mediocre barbecue intact too.
Like many joints, both urban and rural, Cooper’s used to cook with wood but the days when grease-laced hickory smoke wafted out of the back of the joint are long since gone. Alas, I suspect it has been that long since Cooper’s has served a good plate of barbecue. The fact that Cooper’s, though an Eastern-style joint in terms of its menu and sauce, cooks hams and shoulders rather than whole hog barbecue, doesn’t help my opinion of it either.
The Food: Not Yuppicue, Just Not Good
I respect the fact that Cooper’s has stayed true to its roots in terms of the feel of the restaurant and the type of menu it offers. It might have been tempting to turn Cooper’s into a sort of barbecue showplace/museum that caters to convention center visitors and other barbetourists. (As an aside, can we organize ourselves as a state and create a barbecue museum already?!) Yet the menu remains simple, the presentation plain and the price fair. That’s admirable, and probably wise given the loyal customer base Cooper’s has built over 70-plus years of serving white collar and blue collar workers alike.
Each BBQ plate comes with fried pork skins, along with the usual hush puppies, a very nice touch even if skins ain’t really your thing (I confess I am in that camp). Another nice touch is that the ‘cue is available coarse chopped or sliced as well as regular chopped, fairly unusual for Eastern-style joints. Unfortunately, the barbecue itself is only so-so, and the sides don’t fare much better. I ordered the regular chopped dinner with two sides ($6.25). The pork was very dry and without much flavor; perhaps too much ham and not enough shoulder? The classic, thin Eastern-style sauce was good, if not especially notable. Still, I found myself reaching for the squeeze bottle of Texas Pete to add flavor.
Aside from barbecue, Cooper’s small, focused menu includes BBQ chicken, fried chicken and ribs. Firmly in the Eastern tradition, side choices include collards, cabbage, boiled potatoes, potato salad, Brunswick stew, slaw, fries, corn and butter beans. See the Cooper’s website for the full menu.
Despite the so-so food, if you’ve never visited Cooper’s I’d say it’s worth paying a visit to eat a weekday lunch there. There is something about the lively mix of bankers, politicians, and construction workers that populates the joint that makes a meal at Cooper’s flavorful even if the food is not.