At the intersection of soul food and barbecue, there is Pit Stop Barbecue, located in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood. Anyone visiting this little red shack on the side of the road would never think anything has changed over the past 30-plus years the small takeout restaurant has been in business, serving dishes such as its popular trifecta plate of pork ribs, collard greens, and mac and cheese. The paint may be faded, but the fire from the pit, powered by charcoal and wood (no pellets or gas), still burns just as bright. The smoke billowing from the stacks is still a bat signal every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, letting everyone know the pit is open and still serving the barbecue that people have come to know and love for decades.
“We stay true to what we are and don’t try to be something different,” says current co-owner Derek Fowler. The secret sauce, as Fowler puts it, is to “give people what they want and what they are used to. Reminds them of home, with a little bit of a twist to it.”
Pit Stop Barbecue, as the name implies, evolved from a hangout spot for a local motorcycle crew. Around 1983, the little plot of land on the corner of Morton and Evans — owned by crewmember Larry Jeter — was a place for community. At the end of a ride, folks would come by the corner, throw some burgers and dogs on the grill, and have a good time. Eventually, members of the crew suggested that Jeter open a restaurant on the land and expand the informal menu. About two years later, he opened Pit Stop.
Over the years, the restaurant has evolved into a local staple, retaining much of its mid-’80s charm. “Any time anyone mentions even passing through Mattapan, I recommend Pit Stop,” says local and Pit Stop regular Cassie Harris. “It’s more than a restaurant. It’s Boston history and a pillar in the community. It’s the closest thing to Southern comfort food around here.”
When Larry and his wife Joy Jeter decided that it was time to retire from the business in the early 2000s, they knew they couldn’t sell the neighborhood icon to just anyone. They wanted to pass on this family business to another family who would maintain the legacy and integrity of what they built over the decades.
Many potential buyers had their eye on the location, but with the uncertainty of a looming recession and the real estate market being out of sorts, not too many people were willing to take the risk. It would take some time, but the right family eventually came along.
Derek Fowler was no stranger to the restaurant. Growing up on Rockwell Street, not too far from Pit Stop, he and his family were a part of the community and very familiar with the beat of the neighborhood and the Pit Stop way. Today, Fowler is one of three partners in the family-run business; they bought it from the Jeters in 2007. Despite the sale’s timing, Fowler and his family believed in the future of Pit Stop and knew this would be a good investment and an important undertaking to continue the legacy of good barbecue in Boston — which he refers to as an “oxymoron.”
Having Southern roots and family recipes of his own, Fowler could have decided to change the recipes and everything else about Pit Stop. But as they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Pit Stop already had everything it needed to be a successful restaurant, including a great menu and consistent clientele, and Fowler knew he wasn’t just buying a building — he was buying a cultural landmark. “It did not make sense to change anything,” says Fowler. “Restaurants inherently have a high early fail rate, and it would be silly to remove any one component of that.”
In fact, to keep things consistent through the transition, Larry, ready for retirement, stayed on for over a year to support the new Pit Stop crew, making sure everything tasted just right.
Authentic barbecue is not cute, and destinations to find it in Boston are few and far between. Being one of these trusted establishments, Pit Stop has always seen a diverse group of customers who come from all over the city and region to enjoy Southern-style barbecue without all of the fluff.
“When I relocated to Boston from Texas, I was hesitant to try local barbecue restaurants with the fear that they wouldn’t measure up to the taste of barbecue that I was accustomed to back home,” says TaLaya Clanton, a native Texan and Boston transplant. “For a while that theory had proven to be true; other restaurants tried, but nothing really came close to that authentic Texas flavor. That is, until I discovered Pit Stop.” Clanton says the freshly smoked meats, rich sauces, and hearty side dishes provided her “a small piece of Texas here in Boston,” adding “you didn’t go to Pit Stop if you didn’t get the beans.”
The menu features all of the barbecue essentials: large and saucy pork ribs, beef-seasoned and savory collard greens, home-style mac and cheese, desserts filled with generations of love.
Any barbecue enthusiast knows that while the meats are the main attraction, the sides are just as critical to the meal. Beans and cornbread often don’t get their due, but these staples on the Pit Stop menu are exceptional.
The team doesn’t sacrifice flavor or quality. Sometimes customers get upset that they have to wait for their plates, unlike fast food. “We just ask people to be patient,” says Fowler. Good things take time.
Harris, the local who recommends Pit Stop to anyone passing through, has fond memories tied to the restaurant. “Going to Pit Stop with my mom as a child and continuing to go well into adulthood is a special treat,” says Harris. “There aren’t a lot of places still around that hold memories like that for me. There’s no frills, no massive changes or upgrades, just the consistent comfort food I love.”
Fowler and his partners have no intention of conforming to ideals of what barbecue in Boston or “up North” should look like or taste like; they know that true aficionados will seek them out and always come back for more. Still, in a city always changing and developing, the team knows that keeping the restaurant authentic to its roots becomes a task. Pit Stop’s owners have always had dreams of expansion, additional locations, dine-in options — all things that aren’t possible with the size of the current building. (There’s a restaurant in Wakefield by the same name, but it is not affiliated with the Mattapan restaurant.)
They are realistic about the trajectory of development in the city and have the success of the business at top of mind when thinking about the future. Like the rest of Boston, Mattapan is seeing a boom in massive new developments, such as the $57 million mixed-use Mattapan Station project and the 76-unit affordable housing development Cote Village, each of which is a little over a mile from the restaurant. “It would be nice to leave it as an icon,” says Fowler, but “only time will tell,” as the footprint of the building may be too small to keep up with demand as the area develops.
Pit Stop is currently open for takeout — call (617) 436-0485 — or delivery via Uber Eats. For those picking up, there’s a small parking lot on the property, and street parking is also readily available.