The Chitlin’ Circuit and barbecue in Jacksonville

While the Chitlin’ Circuit is generally recognized for its musical contributions to society, in honor of National Barbecue Month, barbecue is a part of the circuit’s legacy of local authentic restaurants, operators and stands that continue to dot the landscape.

The Chitlin’ Circuit and barbecue in Jacksonville

LaVilla’s West Ashley Street in 1947. | University of North Florida

Barbecue, booze and entertainment shared a similar relationship in the development of Jacksonville’s early African American neighborhood commercial districts like Florida Avenue on the Eastside, Myrtle Avenue in Durkeeville, Moncrief Road in Moncrief and West Ashley Street in LaVilla, a peer of Memphis’ Beale Street.

Adjacent to railroad yards, naval stores yards, sawmills and riverfront wharves, Jacksonville’s African American neighborhoods were known throughout the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor for their nightlife, entertainment, music and barbecue scene. For example, by 1955, barbecue restaurants on or near West Ashley Street strip, the heart of Black commerce in Jacksonville, included A Brown Bar & Bar-B-Q, Bill’s Bar-B-Que, Duck’s, Ivory’s Barbecue & Chili Parlor, and Singleton’s Superior Bar-B-Q.

In many communities on the Chitlin Circuit, a popular menu item just after World War II was the rib sandwich, which consisted of three or four ribs served between slices of bread with slaw and a little barbecue sauce. Served with the bones in, the sandwich was meant to be pulled apart with the fingers and eaten. Locally, this historic dish continues to be a popular item at two of Jacksonville’s oldest barbecue restaurants, Holley’s Bar B Q and Jenkins Quality Barbecue. Originally located on Downtown’s West Ashley Street during the 1960s, Jenkins was recently crowned the best barbecue restaurant in Florida by the Food Network.

Jenkins Quality Barbecue began with God, a dream and $125 on October 11, 1957. Established by Melton Jenkins Jr. and his wife, Willie Mae, Jenkins didn’t have much to his name. What he did have was a secret family barbecue sauce recipe, which had been handed down from his father. He used this to open up his first restaurant at Kings Road near Spires Avenue with a menu that strictly featured ribs and chicken. Advertising in those days was done by word of mouth and “smoke signals.”

Established by Jack Holley in 1937, Holley’s Bar-B-Q is Jacksonville’s oldest and longest continuously operating barbecue restaurant. It owns the distinction of being the place where curly fries were invented. While the rib plate is a popular historic dish, this writer’s go-to menu item is the rib tip plate along with whatever cakes and pies are still available at ordering time!

The rib tips plate at Holley’s Bar-B-Q is a variation of the rib sandwich menu item that became popular in Chitlin’ Circuit era African American barbeque joints following World War II. | Ennis Davis, AICP

Editorial by Adrienne Burke, AICP, Esq. and Ennis Davis, AICP. This historical narrative is the result of research work focused on the history of the Florida Chitlin’ Circuit for the Florida Division of Historical Resources Small Matching Grant program.