Keaton's Barbecue Chicken
Sign on 64 to Cool Springs Road
Front of Keaton's Barbecue Joint
Order, Pay, Have a Seat
Mind Your Manners Please
Keaton's Terrific BBQ Chicken
“In God we trust. All others must pay when they order,” notes a sign behind the front counter at Keaton’s Barbecue in western Rowan County, North Carolina. Rest assured that foolishness is not appreciated or tolerated, and there’s a two beer limit to help ensure that guests do not get out of line.
Rules of the Restaurant
There are a number of other rules. Locals will, of course, know the basics of proper rural behavior but reminder signs are posted as a precaution or for city folk who may not know that bare midriffs are not appropriate at the dinner table. In addition, your trash goes in the can, the tea pitcher goes on the rolling cart, and you don’t take photos of employees or strangers even if you do have a hankering to have proof that there are still quaint dives out in the country.
I'm not ragging on the rules. If you go in and act like you have some sense, they are just fine about it all. I went one day when it had snowed. They were closing up due to no customers, but they told me they could make up a to-go box if I wanted. I was glad to get the chicken, and my son (who was sent home from school due to weather) was as well.
Keaton's just has more a family feel than a restaurant feel. If you can't play well with others, then you might want to hit a chain where they seldom wing it and use some common sense like closing when business is slow.
Best Barbecue Chicken Ever
Keaton’s serves the best barbecue chicken on the planet, and every few years someone from a major magazine will re-discover the local dive and write a little about it. Not a lot though. The family isn’t all that keen on publicity. They’re generally quiet, hard working people who tend their business and expect you to tend yours.
The chicken is fried and then sauced or mopped with Keaton’s barbecue sauce. While you may be thinking of chicken kind of like hot wings with heavy breading and thick sauce, that’s way off. Keaton’s chicken is not breaded, and the sauce is thin with a definite vinegar twang. While you can buy the barbecue sauce now, it would be difficult to recreate the chicken just as it’s served at Keaton’s (and you’d miss the atmosphere of course).
You can also get pork barbecue (at least on some days), but you’d be better off with the signature barbi-fried chicken. The pork isn’t bad, but head on to Salisbury, NC or Lexington if you have a hankering for North Carolina pork barbecue.
On the Side
They keep it simple at Keaton’s. You get a hamburger bun or white bread rolls and a choice of a few sides. The homemade macaroni and cheese is probably the most popular. They serve two slaws – white mayonnaise based and a spicy barbecue red slaw, baked beans, potato salad, and French fries. You might get a baked potato or you might not. You have to check on that when you get there.
There are a number of traditional Southern desserts on the menu. Think of dishes like banana pudding, carrot cake, and cherry yum yum.
These are available or not (as with the sides) depending on how much time they have to cook and how many people eat on any given day.
Where is Keaton’s Barbecue?
Keaton’s is quite literally in the middle of nowhere.
If you check the address for Keaton’s Barbecue, it’s listed as being in Cleveland, NC. Cleveland is a town of 800, and Keaton’s is 15 to 20 minutes outside the town limits. So, it’s really in western Rowan County and not in any town at all.
You may think you’re lost the first time you head out looking for Keaton’s. It is in the woods, and there are farms on either side and both coming and going.
The easiest way to get to Keaton’s is to come in off I40 between Winston-Salem and Statesville, NC. Look for the 64 Cool Springs exit. Beware that there are two 64 exits, so make sure it’s the Cool Springs exit, or you will actually be lost in the country.
When you exit on 64 turn towards the gas station and sign for the campground. That’s all you’ll see on that exit, and you need to drive past those until you see the white Keaton’s sign with the red arrow a couple of miles past the Parker Farm.
Turn left onto Cool Springs Road and drive another couple of miles until you see Keaton’s on the right. There’s nothing else there, so when you see a building, you have found Keaton’s Barbecue. Then, enjoy the best barbecue chicken ever, but mind your manners or you may be given a warning or a to-go box.