Pilots have been known to fly their single-engine planes from Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia just to enjoy lunch at Low and Slow Smokehouse at Johnston Regional Airport in Smithfield.
They taxi in and head to the third-floor restaurant that offers a bird’s-eye view of aircraft taking off into the wild blue yonder or landing like graceful cranes. One aviator went so far as to record his Low and Slow experience in a TikTok video, which just feeds our curiosity further.
None of this really surprises owners Philip and Monica Bailey, who recognize that operating a restaurant at an airport is a bit of a novelty. “They’re just on a joyride, I guess,” says Monica, smiling.
Still, the couple couldn’t help but be awestruck when one day, out of the blue, four Chinook helicopters whirred in and several soldiers in camouflage piled out. They were from Fort Bragg — and they were hungry.
Mountains of nachos soon followed — loaded with pulled pork barbecue, mac-and-cheese, and a tangy sweet sauce. Alligator nuggets with white sauce for dipping were delivered to satisfy the daring foodies, who exclaimed, “It tastes just like chicken!” Platters of beef brisket, tender and flavorful, were served with sides such as collard greens, sweet potato fries and cornbread, too. And complimentary appetizers of pork rinds helped everyone get started on a crunchy note.
Our party is rightly tempted by the mile-high burgers topped with slabs of tender beef brisket and slices of bacon. They’re for hearty appetites only -- unless you want to cut it in half and save for the next day’s lunch. The smoked turkey breast plate also is quite tasty. We add some extra Bob’s Smokin’ Southern BBQ Sauce from a plastic squeeze bottle on the table and are delighted to learn that the maker, Bob Fletcher, is a veteran who lives in Fayetteville.
“Supporting local” is big for this restaurant — from the locally sourced meats and produce to refreshing wines and beers. We opt to wash down our meals with colorful specialty cocktails with names such as Blue Sky and Top Gun.
You can eat for $12 or $42, depending upon your taste and appetite. The more smoked meat, the pricier the platter. A kids’ menu offers selections for $6.50 and $7.50. Whatever you choose, it’s worth saving room for dessert. Homemade banana pudding and peach cobbler are as good as Granny’s.
The service is friendly and efficient, and the vibe makes us feel like we’re in a hangar but with epic views. Piped-in country music also sets the tone. The dining room and bar seat about 100, but another 60 seats are on an outdoor observation deck where a dad and his two kids marvel at the planes all in a row on the runway. Signs point out that you are responsible for your kids and your own safety.
The Baileys — he worked in management for Pepsi, and she was in the medical field — seized the opportunity to open the restaurant after meeting Trey Walters, CEO of Blue Line Aviation flight school at the airport. Talks ensued, some delays occurred because of the pandemic, but ultimately, the restaurant greeted its first customers late last year. Several family members strive to create a memorable experience.
The name Low and Slow seemed perfect because of its double meaning — in cooking and aviation. The Baileys got started in the business with a food truck and barbecue competitions, which introduced them to a lot of local folks and generated many catering gigs.
The restaurant, accessible by elevator or stairs, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. It’s a great place to take mom, dad, grandma, grandpa and the kids. “It’s peaceful and relaxing just to sit here and watch the planes,” says Monica Bailey.
Philip Bailey says he wants customers to see Low and Slow as more than just a barbecue joint, though. The restaurant has recently seen an uptick in sales of steaks and chops along with other fine dining options.
It looks like the sky’s the limit.
Low and Slow Smokehouse is at 3149B Swift Creek Road in Smithfield. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Breakfast is 6:30 to 10:30 a.m.; lunch is 11 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. on weekdays, until 4 p.m. on weekends; dinner is 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Check out the restaurant’s Facebook page for details on live entertainment. Call 919-578-6479.