Word came recently that Bessinger’s Barbecue on Highway 17 is retiring its barbecue buffet, a move owner Michael Bessinger has been contemplating for several years.
Bessinger's fans need not panic completely. The sandwich shop side of the restaurant, which serves a splendid version of Midlands-style mustard-based barbecue and hash and rice, isn’t going anywhere.
But they’re pulling the plugs on the steam tables, where stainless steel pans once brimmed with fried chicken and catfish alongside the restaurant’s signature pulled pork and ribs. And also with mac and cheese, collards, fried okra and squash casserole. And also hash and rice, lima beans, sweet potato souffle, and even tossed green salad, for reasons I’ve never understood. (Who would waste valuable plate real estate on a green salad?).
For me, it’s bittersweet news, for the barbecue buffet has long been a South Carolina institution. The centerpiece of restaurants throughout the Midlands, Pee Dee and Lowcountry, they’re found almost nowhere else in the United States.
In all my travels, I’ve encountered of only two barbecue restaurants outside the Carolinas that offer buffets: Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro, Ky., and Leonard’s Pit Barbecue in Memphis, Tenn. (I’m not counting the so-called “barbecue buffets” commonly advertised in northern climes, like the Chicago restaurant that boasted this Father’s Day of its “outdoor barbecue buffet that features grilled favorites, such as burgers, corn, sausage, steak and ribs.”)
With each passing year, though, buffets are becoming less and less common in South Carolina. J.B.’s Smoke Shack on Johns Island closed its doors earlier this year, and Po Pigs Bo-B-Q on Edisto, which bisected its dining room with a white picket fence to corral diners into the buffet line, closed in 2016. Moose’s Barbecue in Moncks Corner, where my eldest son ate himself into his first barbecue coma and snored in the backseat all the way home to Mount Pleasant, moved to Summerville in 2013 and shut its doors a year later.
By my count, Bessinger’s move leaves just two Charleston-area barbecue restaurants with all-you-can eat buffets, and both are named Dukes: one on Folly Road James Island, the other on Spruill Avenue in North Charleston.
Multiple explanations have been offered for the buffet’s decline. There are the millennials, of course, who, if you believe middle-age commentators, are basically killing everything good, like breakfast cereal and office culture and, according to Sandy Hingston of Philadelphia Magazine, mayonnaise and mayonnaise-based salads.
In 2015, Michael Bessinger told The Post and Courier that his buffet customers tended to be an older crowd. “Younger people are afraid of buffets,” he explained. “They’re scared to touch the ladles.”
But it’s not just squeamish youth. The economics of the buffet are tough, and the real culprit may be barbecued ribs, or, more precisely, diners’ unending desire for ribs, an increasingly pricey cut. Buffet operators wince as they watch customers mound their Styrofoam plates with pulled pork, chicken and many spoonfuls of sides, and then drape four or five ribs over the top.
Restaurateurs have tried various tactics to discourage rib-hogging. Bessinger briefly added a $3 surcharge for ribs, but his customers wouldn’t have it. When Mark and Lynn Behr bought Sweatman’s Barbecue in Holly Hill in 2011, they replaced the all-you-can-eat buffet with a single trip policy. Longtime customers rebelled, and the Behrs reinstituted all-you-can-eat, but they now limit diners to two ribs each.
More than anything, the buffet seems to have fallen out of step with contemporary barbecue fashions. The hipsters in Austin, Texas, have convinced us that barbecue means waiting in line for an eternity (literally several hours at some of the more popular Texas joints) so we can watch brisket and ribs be carved fresh to order under our noses. We expect to accompany our artisanal meat with “chef driven” sides and wash it down with craft beer and maybe even a handcrafted cocktail.
At South Carolina’s buffets, the barbecue waits for you, not the other way around. The desserts are made in sheet pans, and the whipped cream is sprayed, not spooned, on top. Even at the best buffets, where the vegetables are cooked fresh and not just emptied from a can, the preparations are simple: green beans in pot liquor, limas in pot liquor, black-eyed peas in pot liquor.
The barbecue buffet may be on the retreat here in the Lowcountry, but for now, at least, it’s holding fast farther inland. Worthy examples can be found at Jackie Hite’s in Leesville, Little Pigs in Columbia, Shuler’s in Latta, Brown’s in Kingstree, Wise Bar-B-Q House in Newberry, McCabe’s in Manning (which recently reopened after being closed for months due to family illness), Sweatman’s in Holly Hill, Carolina Bar-B-Que in New Ellenton, and the more than a dozen Dukes locations that dot small towns throughout the Midlands.
Charlestonians may soon have to drive a fair way to pig out at an all-you-can-eat barbecue buffet, but that’s OK. Just make sure to name a designated driver so you can loosen your belt, recline your seat and have a good long snooze on the way home.