Melody (my wife) and I were invited on a familiarization trip to Johnston County, North Carolina. The towns of Clayton, Smithfield, Selma, Benson, Four Oaks, and Kenly make up Johnston County. Melody is particularly fond of the state and wanted to see this area firsthand. Here are some of the fun things to see and do when visiting Smithfield and Johnston County, NC, that we found.
Eat Delicious NC BBQ
When I’m in the South, I feel a sense of comfort and belonging. Walking into Redneck BBQ Lab for an early dinner was just exactly that. The place was busy, the staff was hustling, and patrons were friendly and happy. You know this is making our list of best things to do in Johnston County.
The Redneck BBQ Lab is in Benson. It has a walk-up counter where you order and can see the staff preparing the plates. Just looking at the tantalizing food options, it’s easy to see why this award-winning barbecue joint is popular among locals and visitors.
St. Louis Ribs, pork loin, pulled pork, brisket, red hotdogs (a local fave!), smoked turkey, pickled onions and okra, jalapeño mac & cheese, cornbread, and turnip greens are some of the offerings. Be warned: “when they’re out, they’re out,” which is typically the case for burnt ends (available Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday). The sauces (and correct pronunciation around here is “sawse,”) are all homemade and can be purchased throughout town.
The Redneck Lab also has online ordering, a convenient drive-thru, catering for cookouts and weddings, and mobile trucks. Mike, the manager, was quick to introduce himself and make us feel welcome. The meal, served appropriately on butcher paper, was outstanding.
Under the Oak Café is a counter-service restaurant serving daily lunch and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays in an upscale setting. Creative sandwiches are served on house-made bread, while other menu choices include gourmet salads and tasty side dishes. I had the Sweet Stinky Pig sandwich with smoked ham, crispy bacon, goat cheese, and blueberry mustard. It was delicious! Melody chose the Hogfather, with Capicola, salami, mortadella, pickled green tomato, mayo, and spicy mustard.
Under the Oak also has Homemade Pork Rinds that were still crackling when they arrived at our table. Blake (the owner and chef ) was busy preparing the fresh foods but took the time to introduce himself. His wife, Megan, makes wedding cakes and can be found at I Do Cakes, which received the WeddingWire Couples’ Choice Award for 2019.
Shop, Sightsee, and Indulge in Sweets
Melody was in high cotton shopping at Oak City Collection in downtown Smithfield, where she brought home a few souvenirs and local t-shirts. In Clayton, ReJoyce Gifts has a beautiful selection of kids and baby clothing.
She also made her mark at the Carolina Premium Outlets. The 80-store complex includes Ralph Lauren, Kate Spade, Coach, and a couple of unique stores such as Clayton General Store and Carolina Pottery. It is a great place to do some shopping.
Sherry’s Signature Cheesecake is a place we came upon when exploring Clayton, a few minutes from Smithfield. We popped in to see what was on the menu. Inside, this gorgeous parlor offers a variety of homemade cheesecake flavors as well as a few other pastries and scones. What a find!
Our visit to the Ava Gardner Museum was enjoyable. I knew she was a beautiful Hollywood actress, but not much past that. The self-guided tour began with a 15-minute film of Ava’s life. After that, we were free to roam around the 5,000 square foot exhibit space. Ava’s clothing, costumes, jewelry, awards, and other personal items are displayed, including some vintage Gucci purses. If you enjoy The Golden Era of Hollywood, you will definitely love this museum.
Seek the Unusual Attractions
Whatever vehicle you drive, Kenly 95 is not to be missed. Besides a large selection of foods, road gear, automobile, and big rig accessories and parts, there is also a huge selection of local souvenirs. Kenly 95 operates under the same umbrella as the Truckomat Iowa I-80 organization. I have never seen such a large variety of lapel pins for collecting; military, US-themed, dogs, food, favorite sayings, and nostalgic to choose from. It will take you a while to go through the selection. Kenly 95 also has an excellent selection of items to dress up any truck.
Learn About Life in Johnston Co.
The Tobacco Farm Life Museum begins with a film about farming. Then, you tour various buildings on the grounds (including a farmstead home) that are filled with antiques from time’s past. Many of the pieces (such as the kitchen dining table and place settings) are original to the era of the historic homes.
The tobacco barn shows how tobacco hangs to dry. Pay close attention to the video showing how tobacco gets auctioned off. It is fascinating! This museum is a real eye-opener to a crop and big business that rarely gets talked about.
Drink Awesome Beer
Double Barley Brewing is a family-owned brewery, taproom, and beer garden that is a real pleasure to visit. A tour is available to explain their brewing method. Double Barley’s on-tap choices include year-round and seasonal brews such as Wilma’s Wandering EyePA, Double Dubbel, and Gourd Rocker Imperial Pumpkin Porter. Melody enjoyed the Thrilla in Vanilla Porter and the Steakcake Stout. Cheryl, the Double Barley Brewing owner, suggested that she mix the two to create a unique taste. It was well-received.
You can also order a few food items at Double Barley Brewing, including Pretzel Bites with Beer Cheese and a variety of sandwiches, flatbreads, and tacos. The live music in the beer garden was perfect for a Friday afternoon and attracted quite a crowd. Double Barley’s staff was friendly and knowledgeable of all their different brews.
Don’t Miss the Wine!
Hinnant Family Vineyards & Winery is a great place to sample signature North Carolina muscadine wines. Melody and I had just sat on a barstool and started our wine sampling when another couple joined us. They saw the tasting room sign while traveling on the interstate and hopped off to check it out, as well as the following few people who came in the door. We all enjoyed the presentation of the sweet wines while our server explained the wines’ flavor profiles and what pairs well with them.
I appreciated that Hinnant Family Vineyards gave us a list of the wines for the sampling and a brief description of each one–I was able to write notes about the ones I preferred. The retail side had an exclusive selection of gifts for wine connoisseurs. Melody loved the wine slushes.
Stay Close to the Premier Shopping
The Country Inn & Suites by Radisson is a casual hotel with affordable rates, an indoor pool, stylish decor, and really comfortable beds. This hotel is in a perfect location for touring all of Johnston County and is right by the Outlets, perfect for an evening of strolling. Breakfast and Wi-Fi are complimentary with your hotel stay.
Johnston County: A New NC Town to Love
The best things in Johnston County, North Carolina, were the local businesses, delicious food, and unique museums. We met such nice people and felt very welcome. Whether you are enjoying a cold local beer or learning about Ava Gardner’s Cinderella story, eating the fantastic barbecue, or admiring the small-town charms, Johnston County is a great place to consider exploring.
Fun Fact: Smithfield and Clayton (where we spent most of our time) are two towns you’ll be hearing lots about as more people discover Johnston County.
Article written by Eddie Pittman.
Thanks to Johnston County, NC for hosting our trip. As always, opinions and reviews are 100% mine and unbiased.
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