Billy's Bar-B-Q has been a Lexington institution for 34 years. During that time, its bragging rights have included being voted the city's best barbecue in the Herald-Leader's Readers Choice Awards, and recognition in out-of-town publications including The New York Times. It is a neighborhood mainstay in Chevy Chase and a highly visible caterer all over.
With the high turnaround in the restaurant business, one might ask what explains three-plus decades of longevity? My guess would be the holy trinity of friendly service, reasonable prices and a quality product that has evolved and improved.
Standard items at Billy's are often a cut above the competitors', due in part to fearlessness with spice. The golden banana pepper rings, lightly battered and served piping hot, are tangier than elsewhere — and spicier, too. The cocktail sauce has a nice kick, as does the creamy beer cheese that includes the usual dippers: carrot and celery sticks. I wish, though, that someone somewhere would improve on the lackluster presentation of these vegetables; for instance, peel the celery to remove the strings, and blanch the carrots to bring out their sweetness. Oh, well.
Billy's makes the spiciest — and best — corn bread in town: Mexican corn bread. Packed with cheese and corn, jalapeños and pimentos, it is one of the best things on the menu and worth every cent of $1.99. It will amp up the hearty burgoo loaded with cabbage, carrots, corn and pulled beef. If you want to give the burgoo center stage, try instead two large slices of the excellent Texas toast, grilled and garlicky.
But spice is only the beginning. The lightly battered onion rings, a justly famous snack here, are slippery and perfectly sweet. The crunchy coleslaw is modestly dressed. Billy's potato salad is not sloppy with mayonnaise, making it a great simple side for the heavier foods, or for a sandwich of pulled barbecued chicken served with pickles and onions.
All these delicious dishes complement the rich and smoky meats that you may order wet or dry. If you pick dry, you may customize the flavors by adding the seasoning salt and any of the three sauces — mild, hot and mustard — that are on every table.
Organize a group of people to justify ordering a sampler of four items. The breast of chicken is snow white and juicy. Pass around the two succulent spare ribs so everyone gets a bite. The Kentucky Proud mutton, a tip of the hat to Billy's Western Kentucky roots, is rich without being gamey. Only the beef lost me; on my visits, it was overcooked and stringy.
The platters are garnished with pickles and red onion slices to pair with your meat. Platters also entitle you to sides. A must are the heavenly, creamy black-eyed peas, also the sweet and smoky long-simmered baked beans. The kitchen coaxes ideal texture out of legumes. Finally, don't miss the rich, slightly garlicky cheese grits; they are outstanding.
My only quibble with Billy's are the cobblers that I was told are made off-site. This is a dessert that is at its peak when super-fresh. The peach cobbler a la mode was cloying and syrupy with soggy pastry. Basically, the last course was anti-climactic.
But what has kept Billy's a "go-to 'cue" since 1978 is not the sweets. It's endless plates of succulent ribs and pepper-studded corn bread, fried rings and bowls of beans, sandwiches piled high with meat, all delivered with that one thing you can never outsource: hospitality.
Address: 101 Cochran Rd., at E. High St.
Phone: (859) 269-9593
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri., Sat.; 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.
Other: Parking lot. Some vegetarian options. Alcoholic beverages served. Appetizers, salads and soups, $3.49-$9.99; sandwiches, $3.99-$8.99; dinners and platters, $7.99-$20.99; sides and breads, $1.59-$3.99; desserts, $4.99.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.