Rising from the Pits
Innovative ingredients and modern spaces make barbecue attractive to new customers
Barbecue is going upscale. Ever since 2002, when Blue Smoke seduced the well-heeled residents of Manhattan’s Flatiron District with premium versions of pit classics, operators have known that even power-suited professionals enjoy a barbecue feast. In trying to reach them, today’s most innovative barbecue restaurants are responding with health-conscious ingredients, innovative preparations, and a fresh, modern atmosphere.
“I love barbecue and I think its potential is yet to be realized,” says Jimmy Schmidt, chef and owner of Lucky’s Noble BBQ in Detroit. “As we rethink what barbecue is, and apply modern techniques and thought processes to it, barbecue can become an amazing new menu category.”
For Lucky’s, located in the city’s brand-new Fort Street Galley food hall and restaurant incubator, that means rethinking a staple protein source, and eliminating another entirely.
“We’re working with wagyu beef for our protein source, along with king salmon and shrimp and really noble protein ingredients,” he explains. “Wagyu beef is high in omega fatty acids, which are good for you.”
According to Schmidt, Lucky’s focus on wagyu yields some sweet results.
“The goal, is to give people ‘foods you love that love you back’ in terms of nutrition.”
- Jimmy Schmidt, Chef & Owner of Lucky’s Noble BBQ
“We cure it like bacon with salt and sugar, we smoke it like bacon, and then we slow-cook it with barbecue spices,” he explains. “It’s a multi-step process, but it develops the umami flavor and the depth of the wagyu, and it really turns it into barbecued beef candy.”
The goal, according to Schmidt, is to give people “foods you love that love you back” in terms of nutrition. That translates into items like Lucky’s wagyu kalbi beef sandwich (“made with the best center cut out of the short plate”), wagyu beef short rib with cauliflower risotto and wagyu beef back long ribs.
“They’re giant beef ribs, and they’re amazing,” Schmidt says.
The restaurant has seen brisk business since opening last December, especially with its proximity to downtown office buildings.
“People do love barbecue, and they are very open to eating better,” he explains. “We’re running about 60 percent repeat customers.”
At Philadelphia’s Rex 1516, some of the city’s best barbecue is served in an elegant dining room complete with chandeliers, candlelight and oil paintings—and not one neon beer sign in sight.
Barbecue staples like smoked wings and St. Louis-style spare ribs share the menu with fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, and shrimp and grits, drawing a smart crowd to this chic Rittenhouse Square establishment.