The tune of “Happy Birthday” came from behind the register of Clyde Cooper’s Barbeque as Debbie Wray, the restaurant’s owner, sang to a group of smiling customers. This year marks 85 years of Clyde Cooper’s Barbeque creating a welcoming space and building a family through community.
On New Year’s Day 1938, founder Clyde Cooper opened a barbecue restaurant with money lent from his brother and a passion for good barbecue. Now, 85 years later, the restaurant has become a monument with a loyal fan base that extends past state lines.
Cooper ran the restaurant for 50 years. Today, Wray runs the restaurant with her daughter, Ashley Jessup.
The barbecue joint also has a long history of inclusivity. When Clyde Cooper’s Barbeque first opened, restaurants in the American South were segregated. There were typically two separate entrances — one for Black customers and one for white customers.
Wray said Cooper’s restaurant was different.
“Clyde was probably the first pioneer [in Raleigh] in letting everybody come through the same door,” Wray said. “His theory was that everybody’s money is green. They should be able to come in just like everybody else.”
Server Sara Rusin said to this day, Clyde Cooper’s Barbeque continues to treat every customer and employee like family.
For the first 76 years of business, Clyde Cooper’s Barbeque sat on East Davie Street in downtown Raleigh before it was torn down for the construction of apartment buildings. In 2014, the restaurant was forced to relocate around the corner to South Wilmington Street.
This move, however, could not — and would not — erase the restaurant’s history. Features of the old building were incorporated into the decor of the new building; the original outdoor awning was hung above a nostalgic lunch counter, and the old front door was hung on the wall, proudly displaying a sign stating “Cash Only.”
A major part of Wray and Jessup’s mission is to continue Cooper’s legacy by making decisions for the restaurant he would have made himself.
“The previous owner changed some things to cut costs and stuff,” Jessup said. “And since my mom knew Clyde and she had gotten his recipes, she knew what he expected out of his food. So we brought it back to that.”
Being from eastern North Carolina, Cooper based his menu around the eastern vinegar-based barbecue. He believed it was important for customers to try the barbecue the way it came before changing anything.
“He was all about having clean, lean barbecue,” Wray said. “If you want more sauce, there’s sauce on the table; you can add some. If something’s not salty enough, there’s salt on the table.”
As time passed, however, there were a few things at Clyde Cooper’s Barbeque that changed. Just this past weekend they started selling beer, and only four years ago, the restaurant started accepting payment with credit cards.
“It took us 81 years to start taking [credit cards], so we kept things Clyde’s way until we really just had to get with the day and age,” Jessup said.
Wray ran the restaurant on the weekends from 1989 to 1995, learning the business from Cooper himself. She became the owner in 2008.
“It was interesting because Clyde would come and sit with me at the cash register,” Wray said. “That’s why there’s a chair right over there — you could be at the cash register, and he always sat in a chair close to you.”
These interactions left Wray with the stories of Cooper that she tells today as well as the secrets behind his famous barbecue and, one of her favorites, the Brunswick stew.
Clyde Cooper’s Barbeque has a wide variety of menu items, including a vegetable plate with options like fried okra, coleslaw and macaroni and cheese, as well as fried chicken, beef brisket and desserts like banana pudding.
While Clyde Cooper’s Barbeque is heavily treasured in North Carolina, its fan base doesn’t stop at the state’s border.
“We have people that [as] soon as they land at the airport, they’re in here,” Wray said. “We have pilots, flight attendants. We have people from all over this world that come and eat with us.”
Support the restaurant’s 85th birthday by checking them out at 327 S. Wilmington St. in Raleigh.
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