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. These dishes are unique and delicious, and there’s a reason locals and visitors alike enjoy them, especially during athletic contests.
Cue the ESPN B-roll footage during any nationally televised game in Cincinnati and you’ll witness the careful construction of 3-ways and cheese coneys above a busy steam table. Clearly, Cincinnati’s culinary scene has evolved past these nearly century-old dishes — have you been to Over-the-Rhine yet? — but chili nevertheless lives on as a symbol of our city’s history and the type of stuff everyone here grubbed on late-night during college. The sports media can say what it wants about our most infamous native fare — screw you, Deadspin! — but it’s ingrained in our lifestyle and we’re not mad about it.
Now that you’re here, it’s probably a good time to understand where Cincinnati-style chili came from. After all, there are more chili parlors here per capita and per square mile than any other place in the world. Sorry, Texas.
The history of Cincinnati-style chili goes back to 1922, with the creation of downtown’s Empress Chili — named after a burlesque theater next door called “the Empress.” Fact is, Cincinnati chili was invented by Greek immigrants — Empress owners Tom and John Kiradjieff — who used Mediterranean-inspired spices to create a meat sauce used initially to top hot dogs sold out of a cart. The beef-based sauce — it’s kind of like a runny pasta sauce with hints of cinnamon, chocolate and other spices — 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. Adding onions to the 3-way makes it a 4-way; onions and beans make a 5-way.
Another Greek immigrant, Nicholas Lambrinides, a former Empress employee, started Skyline Chili in 1965, building it into a regional chain operating in four states (including Florida, for some reason).
In an eternal regional chili war, locals are divided over whether Skyline has the best chili and the other popular local chain, Gold Star, is for losers, or if it’s the other way around. You’ll find die-hard supporters of both. But if you want to go non-chain, there are more than 250 chili parlors in Cincinnati — restaurants big and small offering their own take on this regional favorite.
Camp Washington Chili: This James Beard American Regional Classic award winner has been around since 1940, and Greek immigrant and current owner Johnny Johnson has worked there since 1951. The Googie-style diner is open 24/6 (closed on Sunday). Order: Classic 3-way; supersize it for a couple bucks. 3005 Colerain Ave., Camp Washington, 513-541-0061, campwashingtonchili.com.
The Chili Hut: It’s a food truck, but they shred their own cheese and make their chili from scratch. Order: 3-way with coleslaw on top. Follow them on Twitter @TheChiliHut.
Dixie Chili: Founded in 1929 by “Papa Nick” Sarakatsannis, the family-run Dixie is a Northern Kentucky favorite. Order: 6-way: chili and spaghetti topped with pinto beans, chopped sweet onion, fresh-chopped garlic and cheddar cheese. 733 Monmouth St., Newport, Ky., 859-291-5337, dixiechili.com.
Gold Star Chili: The other Cincinnati-chili chain and the official chili of the Bengals. Makes a variety of unique chili choices; one time they put chili on top of Doritos. Order: 4-Way, Sriracha style. Pick beans or onions to add, then top with a combo of Sriracha and six-pepper spice mix. 504 W. Fourth St., Covington, Ky., goldstarchili.com.
Silver Ladle: Owned by the great-grandson of Nicholas Lambrinides, the Ladle lets you create your own whatever way — pick your base (spaghetti, French fries, etc.), pick your chili (Cincinnati-style, chicken or black bean) and pick your toppings (cheese, onion, jalapenos, black bean soup or sour cream). Order: Spaghetti topped with Cuban black bean vegetarian chili, cheddar cheese, diced onions and sour cream. 580 Walnut St., Downtown, 513-834-7650, silverladle.com.
Skyline: Can’t turn a corner downtown without finding one. It’s also the official chili of the Reds, so you can get Skyline in the stadium. Order: 3-way, dry (less saucy), wet (more saucy) or vegetarian — bean-and-rice chili over spaghetti, topped with a ton of shredded cheddar. skylinechili.com.
Price Hill Chili: A family-run West Side Cincinnati legend (founded by Greeks!) in operation since 1962. Order: Coney Island: a grilled wiener on a bun, topped with mustard, homemade chili and fresh-chopped onion ... or a 3-way. 4920 Glenway Ave., Price Hill, 513-471-9507, pricehillchili.com.