Willis Underwood and Wilber Shirley at Wilber's Barbecue

A Legend Lives On

In April 2020, Eat by Lauren Kruchten

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Goldsboro’s legendary Wilber’s Barbecue will keep on smoking. 

More than a year after the state Department of Revenue shut the restaurant down due to unpaid taxes, the aroma of whole hogs smoking over hot coals still lingers in the open pits, unsurprising for a restaurant that had been in business for nearly six decades. 

Opened in 1962 by Wilber Shirley, Wilber’s is one of the most famous barbecue joints in eastern North Carolina and one of the only to still cook its barbecue over hardwood coals in open air pits. For decades, Wilber’s served as a pit stop for folks traveling along Route 70, and, during the summertime, it was a tradition for many a North Carolina family to stop in at Wilber’s on the way to the crystal coast. Wilber’s has been lauded by national publications including The New York Times, Garden & Gun and Southern Living and many former presidents made it a priority stop at the restaurant on their campaign trails. Some might even consider Wilber’s the best barbecue restaurant in the state—Goldsboro resident Willis Underwood certainly does.

Underwood has been dining at Wilber’s his entire life. He recalls eating there with his family after church on Sundays and ordering takeout for friendly gatherings. “It’s the best barbecue all around,” Underwood says. When the restaurant closed, he banded together a group of Goldsboro natives, residents and barbecue enthusiasts to form Goldpit Partners. The group is refurbishing and restoring Wilber’s into the iconic space that Underwood and so many others grew up cherishing. 

Instead of being replaced with a brand new building, Wilber’s’ bones will remain, with a thorough cleaning and a few coats of paint on its exterior. The same beautiful, knotty pine-paneled walls will stay, along with the nostalgic checkered tablecloths sure to bring back fond memories for longtime regulars. The dusty, dark floors will be replaced with new red and white checkered tiles to bring color to the space and the register will move to the left of the front door in order to create a better flow within the restaurant.

Most importantly, Wilber’s will continue the old-fashioned style of cooking whole hogs over oak wood embers in the original open pits that Shirley built when the restaurant first opened, a 12- to 14-hour-long method that’s both difficult and expensive; but Underwood assures that it is the best way to maintain the classic flavor and tradition.

“The pit is the heart and soul of the restaurant,” Underwood says. “It’s where the magic happens.” 

The same hardworking pit team will return to shovel in coals from the now-functioning chimney throughout the night in order to produce the signature chopped whole hog barbecue Wilber’s is famous for. Whole hog will be available every day, either on a sandwich or as a plate served alongside Wilber’s classic sides such as coleslaw, mac and cheese, Brunswick stew and hushpuppies—made with the same old mix, of course. Fried chicken and “Wilber’s Barbecue Chicken”—baked chicken with gravy—will also be available daily, as well as homemade desserts including banana pudding and pecan pie.

An insurance salesman at Underwood Insurance Services and a passionate fan of eastern North Carolina-style barbecue, Underwood dedicated a lot of time to reopening Wilber’s because he didn’t want to see such an important part of North Carolina’s heritage and culture disappear. Pit-cooked barbecue is a dying breed and Underwood made it his mission to keep the craft alive at Wilber’s. “We’re saving Wilber’s for North Carolina and for barbecue,” Underwood says. 

Shirley, now almost 90 years old, is excited to see his restaurant up and running again. Although he will no longer work the day-to-day operations at Wilber’s—his son-in-law, Dennis Monk, will assume that role—he’ll remain a welcome presence at the restaurant. “I’m proud to know that Wilber’s will not disappear, and that [Underwood] and my son-in-law will be here to help guide it into the future,” Shirley says. “It grew beyond my wildest dreams and is part of our culture.” 

Come spring, the familiar smell of whole hog barbecue emanating from Wilber’s pits will be stronger than ever and a time-tested tradition ingrained in North Carolina’s history will carry on. 

For updates on Wilber’s Barbecue’s spring 2020 opening follow @WilbersBBQ on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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