Willis Underwood and Wilber Shirley at Wilber's Barbecue

A Legend Lives On

In April 2020, Eat by Lauren Kruchten20 Comments

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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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  1. I am so happy that they are still keeping the tradition of the barbecue I’ve been there eating for many years at Wilbur’s barbecue and enjoyed it so much I like knowing that this is still a tradition Thank you so much I am looking forward to eating there again thank you Mary Passmore

  2. I’m so glad that you are open and running again I am a very good dishwasher I really need a job my name is JOHNNY Whitley my number is 919-394-5148

  3. Glad to see it being updated and reopened it had been going down hill for years l love the chicken gravy.

    1. THATS GREAT!!! My Grandmother Charlotte King was a A Head breadmaker for Wilber Shirley for about 15 years me and my entire family grew up on all of that good Food!! She is 93 year old today and still talks about her fond memories of this so Special Place that we all hold Dear in our Hearts Signed Charlotte King Granddaughter Karen Peterson!! Good for you Wilbers Bbq!!

      1. Looking Forward to This Reopening so know I can bring my Grandson there

  4. Wilber gave me my first job at 16 yrs old .my mom worked there to waitressing. My sister too. Wilber also did my horse and carriage ride for my wedding in1999.
    .my mother-in-law and sister-in-law from up north never had bar b que .they fell in love with it
    Wilbers will always be in my heart.
    Looking forward to seeing it open again.

    Debby Outlaw Coffey

  5. Go Willis!! What a treat for Goldsboro and the people of North Carolina!
    Count on our support!!

    Xoxoxo We look forward to stopping for BBQ soon!
    Eleanor Williams would say on our way to the beach
    “ can we stop for some “ barking dogs”??
    Ward and I finally figured out she was talking about “ hush puppies”. We look forward to ordering a double order of Barking dogs!

    Congratulations. We are excited for you and all you have done and will do to save wilbers!!

  6. So glad you are reopening. I lived here for 36 yrs. & this was my go to place.After moving to Tenn. I always came back here every year when I visit.Me & my daughter were very disappointed when we came & they were closed down.Now we definitely have something to look forward to our next trip.

    1. Thank you Mr Underwood for investing in BBQ, Wilbur and especiallyfor North Carolina.
      My family and I live in FL and we would visit our NC family and loved eating NC BBQ.

  7. So many memories of eating there with my grandparents, Annie and Luther Hollingsworth. Thanks brother Luther for posting this. There was not a visit to Goldsboro that we did not end up there eating BBQ. Miss eastern style up here in WNC.

  8. Really looking forward to the opening. A facelift has been long overdue. But in saying that is the best barbecue around.

  9. Please give Wilbur Shirley a lifetime of free eating and hanging out there. He would enjoy that!

  10. Me and my entire family have been customers of Wilbur’s for many, many, years. We owned a business in Goldboro, and enjoyed their food regularly, and also traveled from Kinston to feast on the great food. After retiring to the Coast, we always planned our road trips around a much anticipated stop at Wilbur’s, and were so disappointed when it closed. Our favorite was the BBQ chicken with that delicious sauce, and hushpuppies. We would always order a take home of their famous BBQ. So thrilled to hear this famous eatery will reopen with the same delicious menu favorites. Thank you!

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