WILSON, N.C. — The feel is somewhere between a county Walmart on Sunday and a backyard wedding. Bill Ellis BBQ is service by the trough, a grazing hole for the vacation-bound outlander, the Piedmont local and those of an untoward figure.
It would be easy to call Bill Ellis BBQ that “other barbecue place in Wilson,” the home of the more-renowned Parker’s. This would be unfair. Both stand just off a demilitarized stretch of 301 that’s lined by the corpses of once-loved motels and diners. In the past, this road hopped and bounced with the thunder of all-steel American automobiles, families of four and the occasional reptile zoo. Then the interstate murdered it with four-to-eight lanes, 70-mph speed limits and rest stops.
Bill’s can and should stand alone. It is entirely acceptable, bordering standout, Eastern North Carolina-style barbecue. There is no discernible smoke and less bark, but there is vinegar all day long in two styles. One is straight apple-cider vinegar. The other is a red-pepper flake variation on straight apple-cider vinegar.
There are two spots to find the barbecue in Bill’s. First, the buffet line. It’s near the assorted chicken — fried, grilled, covered in gravy — in the middle section of a serving horseshoe. The second is behind the horseshoe and against a side wall of the rectangular mess hall that is Bill’s. This is the more appealing presentation. A whole hog is set upon a brick-and-heat lamp altar, its meat bounty pulled forth. On either side are the vinegar sauces, and the pork sits in majesty. This barbecue is unadorned; the ‘cue by the chicken is pre-vinegared. You can’t whiff with either.
Bill Ellis BBQ looks like an empire, a kingdom of pork and gout in the middle of the tobacco flatlands. It is a place for grazing and the laying down to sleep of one’s self-respect.
The food is good, but it’s not what’s most memorable. It’s the ambience of that mess hall — the big indoor rectangle that smells like family reunions, with the communal tables, crushed-ice Coke fountains, and a surprisingly small men’s room armed with just two toilets. It’s a daring design plan for a restaurant visited by men whose wide stances are for safety, not homoerotic adventure.
The decor is mostly NASCAR and Jesus, with a smattering of pig. There aren’t signs that say this, but jorts are clearly encouraged, as are cutoff T-shirts and drawn-on, drag queen-inspired eyebrows (for the ladies). The hair is big and the guts dangling, spilling over in diabetic glory.
The dining room sits delicately between Hobbesian chaos and the genteel conditioning of a good, Christian upbringing, but it could be all undone if someone cut the fried-chicken line. The second amendment would burn hot in the heart of the aggrieved as the all-you-can-eat ecosystem falls to ruin in a death rush of buffet justice. There would be pain and righteous indignation, and tears of the purest, purest wrath, and no one would get seconds. No one.
But Bill Ellis BBQ has been better than that since 1963. It is a nice place where people are nice. They graze courteously. They ask politely if seats are taken and make jokes about the banana-bread pudding in the dessert line. It’s not that “other” barbecue restaurant in Wilson, North Carolina. It is, should be and, based on one Saturday afternoon in late June, its own destination — although to be fair, Parker’s was closed. The staff was on vacation.