The Pit is Great, And They’re Open for Lunch

thepit.jpgThe Pit has now been open for nearly two months, and I finally made it there for lunch. Yes, that’s right, for lunch — they started offering the mid-day meal in the last couple of weeks. But others — many others — have beaten me to the punch. Greg Cox of the N&O has already visited and will be reviewing it shortly. Bob Garner‘s crew is editing his review for his television report. And I, after writing about it extensively (including my first ever post on VarmintBites), finally got down to Davie Street to see how good it was. Damn good is the answer.

For some reason, I was a bit skeptical of The Pit. Most of the early reviews were favorable, with a few high praises and one or two “no, thank yous” mixed in. I knew Ed Mitchell could cook a pig as well or better than anyone else, but I also remembered that his Wilson restaurant was plagued with quality control problems. Blame it on inattentiveness, bad management, or just lack of consistent turnover, but I had some pretty lousy barbecue at Mitchell’s. That’s why I was hoping, but not overly optimistically, that this partnership with Greg Hatem and Empire Eats would result in a quality eating establishment.

Based on my one lunch at The Pit, I shouldn’t have worried. If the food is this consistently good at all times, The Pit can now be listed as one of the iconic barbecue establishments not only in North Carolina, but in the country. Hyperbole? I don’t think so. The barbecue is that good, and the couple of sides that I sampled also shined. Frankly, I was completely taken aback. Raleigh finally has a top-notch barbecue joint, and for that, I sing hallelujah.

I first had a cup of Brunswick Stew, which I ordered because I have yet to taste a decent rendition of this classic barbecue fare in a restaurant. My buddies and I have come up with a kick-ass version, but restaurant stew usually reminds me of overly sweet and thick Campbell’s vegetable soup. After my first spoonful of The Pit’s Brunswick Stew, I knew I was in for not just a treat, but an experience. Here is a stew where the sweet and tart elements are both there, but nicely balanced, all pulled together by smoky chunks of pork. I loved this stuff and could have eaten a large bowl. Fortunately, I didn’t.

Instead, I had the chopped whole hog and smoked brisket, both of which were very moist (but not fatty) and contained just the right amount of smoke. The pork barbecue was classic Ed Mitchell style, with a bit of the outer cracklin’s cut into the meat. Not overly sauced, the barbecue was as good as anything I’ve eaten in North Carolina, except for when it came right off a pig (which you can also experience if you sit at the small bar in the back of the restaurant, where Ed Mitchell will serve you whatever he pulls off the hog). The brisket was a bit more heavily smoked, as beef should be, and lightly sauced with a more viscous, Texas style concoction. It might be sacrilege to mix beef and pork barbecue styles, but I have no problem with The Pit serving both (and they also offer smoked turkey and chicken wings, neither of which I tried). We were also provided with a small sample of smoked baby back ribs, complements of the house. These were some of the most tender and flavorful ribs I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant.

The slaw is coarsely chopped, slightly creamy, with a proper balance of sugar and vinegar. This is actually my favorite style of slaw, but some folks may not like the mayonnaise. The macaroni and cheese was a great side, rich with sharp cheddar and just a touch of pepper. Fries are cut in house.

Everything I tried was great, and I’m really surprised. The Pit has its act together, has a fairly vibrant lunch crowd, and is in a space that has the potential to be a fun hang-out. And one other thing: they have a great kids’ menu (and you know how I am about kids’ menus) offering their mac n’ cheese with steamed broccoli, their ribs, a barbecue sandwich, and house made chicken tenders. Why is this great? Because all of things are already offered on The Pit’s regular menu (OK, they also offer a burger, which was added for the kids only). Plus, the kids’ dessert menu includes a chocolate covered frozen banana. Now that’s a cool way for a child to end a meal!

The Pit is a restaurant that the locals will want to take out-of-town guests. They’ll get to meet a genuine North Carolina pitmaster, they’ll experience some really good barbecue, and they’ll have an experience that will make them remember Raleigh.

So my hat is off to the folks at Empire Eats and the crew of The Pit. I can now save my gas money from my trips in search of top barbecue, and just stay here in Raleigh. I’m proud to have you here!


11 Responses to The Pit is Great, And They’re Open for Lunch

  1. ncn8tive says:

    I ate there with friends for the first time last Friday and I agree completely! I had the whole hog pork barbecue with cole slaw, mac-n-cheese and collards. I agree with the comments above about the cole slaw and mac-n-cheese. And I liked the collards even though they had a touch of sugar which I don’t put in mine…all was better after I doused them with a bit of the vinegar sauce. I *really* liked my friend’s brussels sprouts even better…they were sauted, with a just little char caramelizing the edges…mmm-mmm. Everyone else at the table loved their food with one minor exception. We all thought the blue potato salad was on the weird side, mainly only because it was so unexpected. Without asking for a description, we all just assumed that “blue” probably meant that it was a creamy style potato salad that had some kind of blue cheese in it. Turns out it was made from actual blue potatoes in a vinegar dressing…think pickled blue potatoes. Some liked them some didn’t…though that’s no fault of the potato salad.

  2. Cheryl says:

    Geez……sounds like your experience was a whole lot better than ours when we went on the evening of December 26. I’m hoping that part of the problem was simply that this was the day after a major holiday….not a good time to visit any restaurant for the first time, especially a new restaurant. Our chopped whole hog was tender, but appeared to have been drenched not in vinegar-based sauce but straight vinegar….gack! My sides were OK, no complaint there. The hushpuppies were the worst I’ve had in my life, bar none, and I’m a native who’s eaten lots of ‘puppies. I can’t figure out what the chef(s) could have done to make them so bad. My guess was that they were fried up a few days before Christmas, put in the freezer, then thawed out in a microwave the night we were there. Apparently The Pit has improved significantly in the last several weeks to merit such a glowing review from Mr. V, who has a very discriminating palate when it comes to ‘cue.

  3. Susan says:

    Everyone absolutely has to have the brussels sprouts. Even if you don’t like sprouts, you will love these. I promise you.

  4. Cheryl says:

    Here’s another vote for the brussels sprouts. Speaking of sides, I ordered the bean salad, which I assumed would be traditional 3-bean salad served at other BBQ places and widely found in the South. The Pit, however, has a different take on bean salad: blanched green beans and cherry tomatoes/tomato bits with bleu cheese dressing.

  5. Varmint says:

    OK, I had the brussel sprouts at lunch today, and they were fantastic. Their lunch business has really picked up, so we had to sit at the bar — boy, I wanted to sample one of the craft beers they had on tap!

    I also had a chance to chat with Ed Mitchell today, and he’s pretty damn happy that everything is going so well. So am I.

  6. Varmint says:

    Oh, and Cheryl, Ed said that he is working on the hush puppy recipe. He knows they haven’t been very good.

  7. phoebe says:

    i’m only going to be able to get take out when I go this Friday…can you guys give me some suggestions?

  8. Cheryl says:

    “Oh, and Cheryl, Ed said that he is working on the hush puppy recipe. He knows they haven’t been very good.”

    Hmm…that gives me incentive to go back then. Since puppies are a staple at ‘cue places, I thought the ones we had must have been left over and they hadn’t had time to make more (because of being off for Christmas). Maybe he needs to consult with Malawry….

  9. Varmint says:

    Greg Cox gave The Pit 3-1/2 stars today. It’s interesting that the review came so soon after the restaurant’s opening two months ago. He admitted in the review that any problems he had may have been due to “growing pains.” I wonder why he reviewed this place so quickly after its opening. And frankly, it’s better than 3-1/2 stars, particularly on his “sliding scale” that takes into account dining value.

  10. Fuzzy says:

    I’ve had lunch there twice now, with 2 separate parties of folks that I wanted to have try it. I was a big fan of Ed Mitchell’s old restaurant, and also enjoyed his bbq at a couple of catering functions around the state.

    I grew up locally, it has not been unknown for our family or for folks we know to do our own hog at times, and I’ve eaten at one time or another most of the barbeque in eastern NC in the past 40 years. In fact, I’m an old die-hard eastern NC bbq fan, who believes that even though that stuff in Lexington may be good pork, you shouldn’t call it bbq, so that’s how extreme I am. Bear all this in mind.

    The atmosphere at The Pit is kind of cavernous and cold, it’s a big industrial box. I don’t need it fancy (note that I enjoy Holden’s) but when the restaurant isn’t busy it is rather odd. One lunch they were *very* busy, and it warmed the place right up.

    We did not enjoy the bar either time, one was a business lunch, and the other was a personal luncheon in the middle of the business day.

    The meats overall were fine. People I have been with sampled the pulled and chopped whole hog, the brisket, and both styles of ribs, as well as the fish. I didn’t find the bbq much better than Coopers or Holdens, and the ribs were not done in a style I appreciate, but overall they received good reviews from everyone.

    The biscuits the first time out were excellent: fresh, hot, with a superior texture not often found in commercial biscuits, and just the right size (i.e., not so darn big). The second time I was there the biscuits were clearly reheated and had gotten hard on the outside and mushy on the inside. There is no excuse for serving reheated biscuits.

    The buns of two people who got sandwiches were quite large, which is forgivable, and quite hard, which is not. Bbq buns shouldn’t be hard like french bread, at least not where I or the other native North Carolinians who were there come from.

    The hushpuppies were “acceptable”. Totally generic, which is less than I expect from any place associated with Ed Mitchell. I’m not even sure they weren’t made from a mix, which is weird since hushpuppies are one of the simplest things on earth.

    The coleslaw was a split decision. Half the people at the table thought it was just fine each time. On query, it turned out that people who were raised in eastern NC did not like the slaw, wanted “barbeque slaw” and would not put it on their bbq sandwich. The others liked it a lot and praised it. I want chopped cabbage with none of that purple stuff in it, some sweet pickle and pickle juice, celery seed, some vinegar and little or no “salad dressing” (what some folks call mayonaise).

    The other vegetables were quite good, and the brussel sprouts did get rave reviews each time.

    The service was, frankly, terrible. Both visits took over an hour for lunch, which is unacceptable to working people. Both visits we asked for biscuits and hushpuppies when we sat down, and both times we were stonewalled and informed that they only come on the plate. After waiting over 20 minutes for any food to arrive we were told that we would be brought some, but then they didn’t come. Ever. We had to ask for butter for the table, twice, after the food arrived, in order to get any, mostly too late. In fact, one meal we never did get hushpuppies at all.

    Waiting times for each phase of the meal were extended. It took nearly as long to get a check after we were done as it took to get the food, and then like 6-8 minutes (by now we were all counting) to get the bill back after we presented the card. And this in a restaurant which has gone from busy busy to nearly empty by the time we were checking out.

    It was odd that the “sides” were not listed on the menu, they had to be recited in order for us to get them and we had to ask when they came to take our order, which had already taken so long we didn’t want to risk asking them to come back in a minute.

    The disappointment by our waiter that we were not ordering alcohol at lunch was palatable.

    I give it two stars, mostly for the bbq itself, and the vegetables.

    I’ll go back, the next time I’m not in a hurry, and have time for a drink, and if I’m taking people who want a dining experience. But if I’m going for a working lunch in Raleigh and want BBQ, I’ll go to Clyde Coopers next time where I get served in 10 minutes with significantly less price, where the food is almost as good and the slaw is BBQ slaw.

  11. MB says:

    Yesterday was my birthday and last night had to be the best birthday party I have ever had. Family and friends gathered at The Pit to celebrate and my God it was delicious. There is a certain way I like my hog (i.e. chop up some of the skin and throw it on in with the cue) and Mr. Mitchell made sure that happened. There was a birthday serenade by Mr. Mitchell and his sidekick Turnip who blows a mean harmonica.

    If you’re looking a place to cater your upcoming holiday gathering, let me recommend The Pit. If you’re down in the dumps, let me recommend The Pit. If you’re happy and you know it, let me recommend The Pit.

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