Inside the garage doors of a large, industrial building off Berryhill and Freedom sit Stamie, Boyd, Sug, Ruth, Wade, Gilbert, Henry, John Stroud, and Shields Marlowe. Just outside those doors are Beulah and Flossy. They’re a dedicated crew, working in tandem 24 hours a day for Jim Noble’s brand-new Noble Smoke barbecue, and he in turn has dedicated hundreds of hours alongside each of them to ensure the closest thing to smoked meat perfection he can achieve.
But these aren’t his kitchen crew or staff, not the chefs nor servers. No, this crew of eleven are Noble’s smokers and barbecue pits, custom-made for him and each affectionately named after a member of his family; the aunts, uncles, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents who helped shape Jim’s early love of food and gathering. It’s no surprise the smokers would bear their names, since barbecue is Jim’s homage to home, to family, to connection. With Noble Smoke, he wants to provide a space for you to experience the same, inside the doors of the 10,000-plus-square-foot restaurant he opened in July 2019 at 2216 Freedom Drive.
Noble Smoke was a long time in the making—25-odd years for Jim personally and 100 when you think of its place in the legacy that is North Carolina barbecue.
“Barbecue is handed down,” Jim explains. “It’s a trained craft, and that’s the beauty of it. People teaching other people.”
Noble Smoke is deeply informed by the Carolina Lexington style, the seeds of which were planted all the way back in 1919 when Sid Weaver and Jess Swicegood opened joints near the Lexington courthouse. The two launched the barbecue style characterized by its slow-roasted, chopped pork shoulder and tangy vinegar-tomato based sauce.
Things moved quickly from there, and in 1927 high-school aged Warner Stamey joined the team. Stamey is now widely considered one of the most influential pitmasters in the Piedmont barbecue tradition: By 1930, he had moved to Shelby, training Alton Bridges and Red Bridges (of Bridges BBQ) and in 1938, things came full circle when Stamey returned to Lexington, bought the Swicegood’s Barbecue building from his mentor, and renamed it after himself.
Throughout his long career, Stamey influenced and trained many, including Wayne Monk, the pitmaster behind the infamous Lexington Barbecue, opened in 1962. Decades later, Monk coached an eager Jim Noble.
“I didn’t work at [Lexington], but I sure did go to school there. And I cannot say enough nice things about Wayne and Lexington,” Jim says. “They trained me. Every time I went in there, every bite I had, every look I took, every question I asked… They knew I wanted to do barbecue too, and they could not have been more helpful.”
In 2019, exactly one century after Swicegood and Weaver set up shop, the doors of Noble Smoke opened.
A Noble Beginning
Jim isn’t a first time restaurateur: He started cooking with wood in 1984, got his first smoker 30 years ago, and owns the restaurant group Noble Food & Pursuits, comprised today of Charlotte’s The King’s Kitchen, Copain, Noble Smoke, and two locations of Rooster’s Wood-Fired Kitchen. A Noble Grille in Winston-Salem opened doors in the early 90’s as well.
While he didn’t always intend to be a chef, Jim always loved food—barbecue included.
On childhood trips with his father, a furniture rep who traveled North Carolina, Jim was able to visit local restaurants — “nowhere fancy” — from Kepley’s Barbecue and Lexington Barbecue (“our favorite,” Noble recalls), to places like the Doghouse in High Point and Hap’s Grill in Salisbury. The trips exposed him to the type of “joints unique to a particular place” and barbecue was practically a staple of the family diet.
In his college-aged years, he got his first experience with the cooking palate of the French, from their wine and bread to their staple dishes. He became obsessed, inspired by the likes of Julia Childs and Jacques Pepin, and later chefs Jeremiah Tower and Barry Wine. In Napa Valley in 1982, Noble learned about wine and studied the French cooking techniques that he would bring back home with him to High Point. His culinary career had begun, and he opened his first restaurant the very next year.
Through the years, his barbecue R&D continued, as he spent years traveling the South, Texas and the Carolinas, experiencing, tasting, and observing traditions, with detours along the way as he focused attention on each new restaurant he would open. The amalgamation of classic French and historic Piedmont fused into a style that’s all Noble’s own. You won’t be sipping a perfectly paired, full-bodied red wine with too many other pitmasters’ short ribs, but we’ll get to that later.
Brick and Mortar
As Jim prepared to finally open the barbecue spot he’d long dreamt of, he tested his chops with Mobile Smoke, a catering business in which he traveled with two smokers to feed parties of 100 or more. Flossy was his original reverse smoker (now altered to match all of his other direct flow smokers), and Beulah, named after a favorite great aunt who babysat him, fried chicken for the family on Sundays, and loved her Winston cigarettes, was born after a trip to Aaron Franklin’s famed Texas barbecue institution. That time catering allowed him to tinker with the smokers, learning their quirks and doubling down on the intricacies of perfectly tender wood-smoked meat. He will tell you barbecue is simple, but getting it to taste the way his does isn’t.
“You just have to make a habit of doing things other people don’t want to do,” Jim says.
Jim looked for a location for a long time, partially because his list of demands was admittedly long. One day, well into the search, a friend and barbecue enthusiast named Reid McMillan encouraged him to visit an expansive 1950’s maintenance facility on the west side of Uptown.
“I wouldn’t even look at this building for three months… I just didn’t know much about the area. But the first time I finally saw it, I walked into the building and said, ‘My goodness this is the spot.’”
It hit everything on Jim’s wish list — high ceilings, historic bones, garage bays and doors, plenty of parking, a location central to the city, and, perhaps most important, the building sat near the interstate.
“I could’ve gone a lot of other places, but I want to be a regional barbecue destination where people traveling the state, like I did with my dad, can stop in. If you love barbecue, you’ll go out of your way twenty or thirty miles on a trip just to eat. Anybody coming up the East Coast on 77 or 85 can eat here, and that is just beautiful.”
The architectural design process, led by The Johnson Studio out of Atlanta, took about three months, and Jim tapped back into his own industrial engineering background with his vision for how to lay out the kitchen, bar, and overall flow.
The restaurant, wood-dotted with splashes of bright yellow, white, and black, is a blended combination of both Texas and Carolina barbecue joints: spectacle and efficiency meet here in earnest. Flags to represent the United States, France, North Carolina, and Texas cover the expansive walls, and the high ceilings make this feel like a true dining hall. Inside, 200 people can dine and an additional 200 can overtake the outdoor patio and huge, custom-made hickory bar. The open kitchen in the front allows diners a peek at the action, as the chefs chop, slice, and sling barbecue, and a Legends Counter holds 23 seats with plaques for different iconic barbecue pitmasters. Through a bright yellow door on the side, carry-out orders can be picked up, and a row of parking spaces in front of that area serve as a Toot n’ Tell throwback to Carolina carhop days, allowing guests to place an order from the car.
Beside Noble Smoke just a stone’s throw away, Jim’s next concept, a fried chicken shack called Bossy Beulah’s, will open next year.
Not to remain unmentioned is the restaurant’s pride and joy, an attached 1,800 square-foot smokehouse, open for viewing, with six smokers and two masonry pits with a firebox between them. Travis Cauble of Salisbury’s Smoking Steel Works worked diligently to handcraft each smoker, and Roger Koontz, the mason for Lexington Barbecue, consulted on the pit design. Here, the backbone of the whole place is created day in and day out.
“This is the biggest operation we’ve ever taken on,” says Jim’s right hand man and longtime Noble Food & Pursuits Chef Zack Renner. “I see it as Jimmy’s magnum opus: Although he’s far from being done, he’s dreamed about this for nearly as long as I’ve been alive.”
The day to day is carried out with Renner’s oversight, as well as that of General Manager CJ Harvey and Executive Chef Wayne Mason.
On the Meat
There’s no room for mediocrity when it comes to a barbecue restaurant’s meat, so Jim Noble isn’t playing around. His normally gentle, soft-spoken demeanor gets dropped for a moment as he leans in to discuss the star of Noble Smoke’s stage.
“One thing I tell my staff every single day is, ‘I don’t know if I told you this yet, but we’re serious about barbecue here’ and I’m telling you, we are serious about barbecue here. We aren’t here trying to make money, we’re here trying to make great barbecue. If we can do that, everything else will be alright.”
“Alright” is the humble way of putting it. In addition to serving traditional North Carolina pork, Noble Smoke is also cranking out Texas-style brisket; the two styles use a different type of pit. Short ribs will make an occasional special appearance, and the crew is also regularly smoking spare ribs, turkey, chicken, and fish. The similarity between each meat is Noble’s touch, instilled too in each pitmaster he’s trained, and guaranteeing melt-in-your-mouth, fall-off-the-bone tenderness from the rich, buttery cuts and the simple salt-and-pepper seasoning that enhances the flavor of the meat itself as it’s married with the taste born of the smokers and pits.
It’s not the easiest way to cook meat, to be certain, especially when the team made the decision to run the smokers twenty four hours a day and seven days a week.
“It’s a pain in the neck to cook with wood and smoke meat,” Noble says simply. “Wood’s dirty: you’ve got to store and clean wood, and it makes a mess, but I don’t know if I’d really want to be in the restaurant business if I couldn’t cook with wood… and if it doesn’t have wood in it, it isn’t barbecue, I don’t think.”
On the Sides
When it came to sides, Noble wanted consistency but also a touch of modernity. He’s got classics you’d expect, like slaw, beans, and hushpuppies, but he also wanted sides like the sliced heirloom tomato and cucumber salad, white acre field peas, and stewed squash. It’s invitation to diners of all kind, similar to the style he perfected at Rooster’s where the sides toe the line between light and rich. Like Rooster’s, there’s enough of them to mix-and-match, creating variety in your meal each time.
Like with everything, the sides and the whole menu remain open to tweaks and changes. His pursuit of culinary excellence and perfected technique is always evolving, and that type of heart and passion is something you can taste.
On the Beverages
The beverage program did not come secondary to the food at Noble Smoke. On site, Suffolk Punch joined forces with the Noble Pursuits team with a 1,700 square-foot facility and blendery that can produce and age sour and wild ales using Old World techniques. Master Brewer Scott Christofell traveled to Europe to receive a formal education on the “Méthode Traditionnelle”, and Suffolk Punch became only the third US brewery to be certified in the tradition. They’re every bit as passionate and meticulous about beer as Noble’s team is about barbecue, making for a well-suited partnership.
Then there’s the wine, Noble’s original love. The list was compiled in part with Eric Solomon, an importer of wine from France and Spain who attended the Institute of Masters of Wine before founding European Cellars in Charlotte. He’s lead several wine dinner menus with Noble over the years, and the wine lists have been the backbone at all Noble’s other restaurants, as well.
“This process of smoked meats and wines is a very old tradition, just not a very old tradition in the South,” Jim explains.
Still, he’s hesitant to push the wine too hard, cautious because “I don’t want anyone thinking we’re some lofty barbecue restaurant… We have a great beer selection, we have great iced tea, we have Coke and Cheerwine, we have great bourbons. But we also have wine, and the wine is stunning. If I have something to eat, I’m going to have wine with it. This barbecue we do really is such good wine food. So, you don’t have to have all these great wines or great vegetables, but it sure does make the dinner better.”
A great chef can pull off surprising couplings with ease, and that’s exactly what happened when Noble insisted wine tastes great with barbecue — you’ll be surprised you didn’t think of it yourself.
A Wood-Smoked Legacy
One day, shortly after the buzzed about soft opening, Noble recounts his son, on staff, looking over at him and saying, “This is going to be here in a hundred years.” “I said, ‘Yeah it will be… as long as you don’t mess it up!’” Jim laughs.
In the end, Noble’s meticulous dedication to barbecue and all the years leading up to the opening comes down to one thing: family. From the team he carefully assembled to the names he lovingly bestowed on the smokers and pits to the intentional space he dreamt up for barbecue lovers to gather, Noble Smoke is a nod to legacy, to traditions, and to heritage.
“For us,” explains Renner, “as long as the people we are working alongside are enjoying their time, and the people who come to dine have a great experience, we’ve succeeded. If we get some recognition along the way, that’s just gravy. We just want to make great food for people.”
Noble is certain of one thing: The next hot trend of barbecue will fade and another will follow, but barbecue itself will always remain.
“People cooked with fire before they ever cooked with a stove… Food is one of those things that’s a necessity but also one of the great pleasures of life,” Jim says. “Family and food and memories all just kind of go together, and they stay with you for a lifetime.”