Barbecue restaurants that take a little work to find either stay in business because they are great or because they're the only thing around. Bailey's BBQ, on Highway 41 between East Ridge and Ringgold, isn't the most convenient place to get to. Thanks to its big red sign, however, Bailey's is hard to miss if you're close.
On the Monday night that Sarah (the significant other) and I visited Bailey's, it was half full of families with young children, old men in overalls and a middle-aged couple sharing a barbecue plate and a piece of pie.
The good crowd -- especially less than an hour before closing time -- gave me hope we were in for a treat. As did the fact Bailey's has been in business for 40 years and in its current location for a decade.
Bailey's features staples such as barbecue pork and beef plates, barbecue sandwiches, Brunswick stew and barbecue-stuffed potatoes. (Ribs, which came highly recommended, and barbecue chicken are available only on Wednesday and Friday evenings.) The menu also features burgers, hot dogs, hot wings, a limited number of salads (if you want a salad, you should probably go somewhere other than a barbecue place) and a handful of non-barbecue sandwich choices. Children's plates are also available.
I didn't expect Bailey's expansive breakfast menu, which includes more than 30 options, from pancakes and omelets to country ham and egg biscuits. The 6:30 a.m. opening time and large menu suggest that maybe breakfast, not barbecue, is the star at Bailey's.
On the whole, prices are reasonable. A barbecue pork sandwich is $3.59, and a barbecue-beef-stuffed potato is $6.99. The barbecue pork plate, at $9.49, seems overpriced compared to other area barbecue restaurants.
We began with a cup of Brunswick stew. The stew was meaty and the flavor was good, but not great, thanks to a sweet undertone that was hard to ignore. But the real downfall was its water-thin broth. In fact, it's not really fair to call it a stew at all. Campbell's chicken noodle soup has a thicker, more robust broth.
For our main course, I ordered the pork plate, Sarah got a barbecue pork-stuffed potato, and we split a barbecue beef sandwich -- more than enough food for four people.
I first tasted the baked beans that came with the pork plate. For many barbecue restaurants, beans are an afterthought, but at Bailey's, the beans are delicious. Laced with chunks of hamburger meat and enhanced with a mild spicy flavor, the beans were the best thing on my plate -- which is a problem, since Bailey's is a barbecue restaurant, not a bean bistro.
The barbecue pork and beef are chopped, not pulled or sliced, which is a nice change. The pork is moist and has a good smoky flavor but is otherwise a touch on the bland side. The barbecue beef brisket that came chopped up on the sandwich was dry and almost tasteless. Even heavy doses of Bailey's homemade barbecue sauce -- which comes in mild and hot, both of which are thin vinegar-based sauces that are very sweet -- couldn't rescue the beef.
Sarah's pork stuffed potato would have been a standout except for the postage-stamp-size chunks of cold, uncooked onions and bell peppers sprinkled throughout the hot, cheesy potato. The crunchy, cool hunks of fresh veggies didn't sync with the otherwise tasty combination of pork barbecue, baked potato, ham, cheddar cheese, sour cream and barbecue sauce.
In addition to the outstanding baked beans, our meals also came with crispy, wedge-style fries, unimpressive store-bought rolls and what was perhaps the blandest, most unappetizing coleslaw I've ever eaten.
Bailey's doesn't have a hostess stand at the entrance, so it's a little difficult to figure out whether to seat yourself or wait for someone to show you to your seat. Once that bit of confusion was addressed, the service was flawless.
The waitress serving us was warm and friendly, and the food came out hot and fast. Our cups were refilled before they ever became empty. Upon checkout, the owner -- the widow of the restaurant's founder -- greeted us with a smile and invited us back.
The restaurant is small but open and well-lit. Its metal awning and low posture give it the welcoming feel of a country store.
As we prepared to leave, with the restaurant just a few minutes from closing, employees were busy meticulously cleaning. That extra effort shows -- everything in the restaurant, from the tables to the floors to the bathrooms, was spotless.
Bailey's is hit-and-miss. Except for the beef barbecue and the inedible coleslaw, nothing is bad. But nothing -- outside of the baked beans and the fries -- is particularly outstanding, either.
The restaurant has the potential to be great. With a few small tweaks, like getting more flavor out of the pork barbecue, thickening the Brunswick stew and keeping the unnecessary chunks of peppers and onions out of the stuffed potatoes, Bailey's could become a destination for barbecue lovers in North Georgia and Chattanooga.
Contact staff writer Drew Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6300.