Last month, the girlchild went to Knoxville for a week to spend her spring break with some of her other family up there. When it came time to retrieve her, I proposed a fun little two-day trip. We had originally planned to spend a long family weekend in Memphis when she returned, but some unplanned expenses killed that idea. We still needed to pick her up from her trip, but instead of a quick there-and-back day trip, I suggested that we take a little of the money that we didn’t spend and go visit northeastern Tennessee, come back to Knoxville in the evening and stay one night. We’d only driven through the northeastern region in a rush about five years before, on a long trip down I-81 from Baltimore to Asheville on our honeymoon.
As is disagreeably common, the hours that we spent in and around Johnson City didn’t scratch the surface of all the fun things to do and eat in the Tri-Cities – and, heck, we didn’t stop by the Bean Barn in Greeneville on the way, which we definitely should have done – but one thing really stood out as a must-do, and that was a visit to The Original Ridgewood Barbecue, a celebrated restaurant jammed into a hillside on a winding mountain road. Grace and Jim Proffitt opened this place in 1948 selling steaks and beer. The barbecue came later, after the county went dry. Were it not for the unbelievable crush of cars in the parking lot at all hours, it would be just an easily-overlooked building that you only noticed in the corner of your eye as you kept your eyes on the curving highway.
How celebrated a destination is this place? There are 95 counties in Tennessee. Apart from license plates from Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, I counted eighteen different Tennessee counties represented among the cars in this lot.
These days, Grace and Jim’s son Larry owns the restaurant with his daughter, Lisa Proffitt Peters. They don’t care how most of the south does barbecue, because they have their own way. They’re in the minority of restaurants that smoke hams, and in the even smaller minority that serves the meat sliced instead of pulled or chopped. A handful of other places that we’ve visited follow in the Proffitts’ footprints. Couch’s in Ooltewah TN and Armstrong’s in Summerville GA are both broadly similar in preparation style.
The meat is smoked exclusively over hickory – the Proffitts have a farm and an entire forest of hickory at their disposal, allowing them to invest in the more expensive hams instead of shoulders while their wood costs are quite small – and then locked away to chill overnight. When a guest orders a sandwich or a plate, the sliced ham is given a quick reheat on a grill, leaving a delightful char on the edges of the meat.
It is served already sauced; in fact, the sauce is poured over the meat while it is grilling. The tradition here is so important that it seemed wrong to ask for it dry. It’s a tomato-based sauce, thick, with a spicy zing to it.
While waiting for our meals, we enjoyed an appetizer of the Ridgewood’s celebrated blue cheese bowl. They bring it out with saltines and those are pretty good, but go lightly on this stuff while you’re waiting for the fries to come out. One of our great guilty pleasures are the fries with feta at The Grill in Athens GA. These remind me of that treat. They’re excellent hand-cut fries and they go perfectly with this terrific dressing.
This was definitely a really neat stop that lived up to its reputation. However, one legend that I read about this place turns out not to be true any longer. I mentioned to the cashier that, as busy as they are normally, this place simply must be nuts when there’s a big race going at the nearby Bristol Motor Speedway, and he said that’s not really true any more. The locals have figured out not to come during a race weekend, and the mobs that they had all through the 2000s finally gave them enough word of mouth about long lines and crowds that business actually slacks off a little during that time! Funny how what was once a boon turns, over time, into a pain in the neck, isn’t it?
One of the reasons that I love barbecue so much, and cannot understand people who claim not to like it, is that there are so many recipes and varieties out there. The preparation of the meat here is unlike anybody else’s, and while the presentation might owe a little debt to a long-closed place in Daytona Beach that Jim Proffitt had visited in the late 1940s, you can make a case that the Ridgewood popularized it. The sauce has some similarity to what we think of as a Texas-style sauce, but with a different spice mix. And while all of this doesn’t honestly add up to one of my personal favorite barbecue meals, it did add up to one of my favorite stops, as it’s both very different and very good. I’d love to go back again sometime.
Other blog posts about The Original Ridgewood Barbecue:
Like barbecue? You can see all the barbecue restaurants that we have visited for our blog (more than 270!) on this map, with links back to the original blog posts. It’s terrific for anybody planning a barbecue road trip through the southeast!