Certain cities are in part defined by their native cuisines. Although at times stereotypical, one cannot debate the value of partaking in a hot slice of New York-style pizza in the Big Apple, a hunk of deep dish in Chicago or a greasy cheesesteak topped with Cheez Whiz in Philadelphia. And while these dishes are unique and delicious, it could be argued that none quite reach the culinary heights of Cincinnati-style chili.
Whether you love it or hate it, the local delicacy is a long-held part of Queen City culture and is, in fact, celebrating its 100th birthday on Oct. 24, 2022.
To commemorate the centennial, the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library is gathering local chili parlor owners for a photograph at the site of the original Empress Chili — now home to the library at Ninth and Vine streets downtown — where Cincinnati-style chili was first served in 1922.
Named after a next-door burlesque theater (the Empress), Empress Chili was invented by Greek immigrants Tom and John Kiradjieff. The duo used Mediterranean-inspired spices to create a meat sauce used initially to top hot dogs sold out of a cart. The beef-based sauce, with hints of cinnamon and chocolate, eventually became the key ingredient in the 3-Way — a plate of pasta topped with chili, an unnecessary amount of shredded cheddar cheese and a side of oyster crackers.
Another Greek immigrant, Nicholas Lambrinides, a former Empress employee, started Skyline Chili in 1949, building it into a regional chain operating in four states (including Florida, for some reason).
Its top competitor in the local chili chain wars, Gold Star, was founded in 1965 by the four Jordanian Daoud brothers using a secret family recipe.
Whether you're a die-hard supporter of Skyline or Gold Star, there are more chili parlors here per capita and per square mile than any other place in the world, according to local food historian Dann Woellert in his book The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili.
So if you want to celebrate the 100th birthday of the city's saucy, meaty and magical creation, we can think of no better way than eating it.
Here are 15 chili parlors to grab a 3-Way or a coney.
Bard's Burgers & ChiliCalling themselves "the dive that's worth the drive," Bard's has been featured on local news and on the Food Network for its giant Bardzilla food challenge and flash-fried cheese curds. As the name suggests, the eatery specializes in both burgers and chili. Bard's makes its Cincinnati-style chili with local wagyu beef. You can get it in a 2-, 3-, 4- or 5-Way; in a bowl (with or without cheese); and in any iteration of a coney, including a chili cheese sandwich. 3620 Decoursey Ave., Covington, bardsburgersandchili.com.
Blue Ash ChiliBlue Ash Chili offers a variety of Cincinnati-style chili combinations and double-decker sandwiches at its various locations. The restaurant is known as a favorite of Guy Fieri and his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show. The restaurant serves 3-, 4- and 5-Ways, plus a 6-Way, which offers fresh or fried slices of jalapeno. 9525 Kenwood Road, Blue Ash; 11711 Princeton Pike, Tri-County, blueashchili.com.
Blue Jay RestaurantSince its opening in 1967, the Blue Jay Restaurant has, for the most part, remained the same, boasting a nostalgic image and homestyle eats. As with any good local diner, there’s Cincinnati-style chili in bowls, on coneys and 3-Ways, plus classics like all-day breakfast, double decker sandwiches and homemade pie. Try the Northsider omelet, with chili and cheddar. 4154 Hamilton Ave., Northside, facebook.com.
Camp Washington ChiliThis James Beard American Regional Classic award winner has been around since 1940. Named one of the “10 Best Restaurants in Cincinnati” by USA Today, Greek immigrant Johnny Johnson has worked there since 1951 and is the patriarch of the restaurant's operating family. The Googie-style diner is open 24/6 (closed on Sunday). Order the 513-Way, which incorporates another favorite Cincinnati meat — goetta. 3005 Colerain Ave., Camp Washington, campwashingtonchili.com.
The Chili HutStarted in 2013, this food-truck-turned-brick-and-mortar slings cheese coneys, 2-, 3-, 4-, or 5-Ways and sandwich options for the non-chili lovers. Unique coney options include the Slaw Dog, a cheese coney topped with coleslaw, and the Eden Pork, a cheese coney featuring a spicy mett instead of a hot dog. 390 Loveland-Madeira Road, Loveland, thechilihut.com.
Dixie ChiliFounded in 1929 by “Papa Nick,” Dixie Chili has classic, secret-ingredient Cincinnati-style chili with cheese and onions on spaghetti. Traditionally, Dixie’s offerings are dominated by Wisconsin cheddar, and the garlic is a great counterbalance to the dairy, making it one of the area’s favorite chili joints. Order a 6-Way — chili and spaghetti topped with pinto beans, chopped sweet onion, fresh-chopped garlic and cheddar cheese. 733 Monmouth St., Newport; 3716 Dixie Highway, Erlanger; 2421 Madison Ave., Covington dixiechili.com.
Empress ChiliCarrying on the tradition of the original, Empress offers the usual crop of double-decker sandwiches and ways, as well as individual chili pizzas with chili, cheese, mustard and onion on pizza dough. 7934 Alexandria Pike, Alexandria, empresschilialexandria.com.
Gourmet ChiliThis unassuming chili spot tucked away on Newport's Monmouth Street serves up all-day breakfast, burgers, gyros and, of course, Cincinnati-style chili. They even offer a small menu of desserts, including baklava. 843 Monmouth St., Newport, facebook.com.
Lucky Dog OTRLucky Dog calls itself the "culmination of over 20 years of restaurant experience by founders Ryan Reynolds and Ray Gammouh." Using hot dogs from Queen City Sausage, chili fans can opt for coneys, chili metts, chili cheese sandwiches, regular dogs or even a coney crate (10 for $25). They also serve their signature chili in 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-Ways and even on salad. 1210 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, facebook.com/LuckyDogOTR.
Pepper PodGreasy spoon dining at its best, the Pepper Pod is a Newport legend. Grab a 3-, 4- or 5-Way or something off their all-day breakfast menu. The Northern Kentucky diner was even featured in the movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile starring Zac Efron — it was filmed in the Greater Cincinnati area. 703 Monmouth St., Newport, facebook.com.
Pleasant Ridge Chili ParlorThis local multi-generational diner has been serving Cincinnati-style chili and American classics for over 50 years. They also offer chili to-go and late-night eats, like french fries topped with everything from chili to cheese to gravy. 6032 Montgomery Road, Pleasant Ridge, facebook.com/pleasantridge.chili.
Price Hill ChiliA family-run West Side Cincinnati legend (founded by Greeks!) in operation since 1962. Order a Coney Island: a grilled wiener on a bun, topped with mustard, homemade chili and fresh-chopped onion. 4920 Glenway Ave., Price Hill, pricehillchili.com.