Skyline Chili, Explained by a Cincinnatian

Photo by Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images
Yes, it’s delicious. Next question.

Cincinnati. The Queen City. Porkopolis. It’s a town that has long suffered from the outside assumption that there is little good food to consume within its borders. While that is not the case, and really never truly was, Cincinnati has long been derided for its contributions to the culinary world and the focal point of that snickering is always Skyline Chili.

To outsiders, Skyline doesn’t make sense and rather than try to understand it, most would rather label Skyline as not being worthy of their time or digestive system. However, these people are missing out on the deliciousness offered by a proper cheese coney or a three-way (okay, just calm down). As a native Cincinnatian and someone who loves the bazaar local specialty almost as much as I do little Fiona, the little hippo that was also born in Cincinnati, I believe it's time to get the word out once and for all on this cheesy, chocolatey (not really), chili creation. Now, let's talk Skyline.

Why does Skyline need explaining?

Skyline gets a terrible wrap from outsiders who have never tried it. While there are plenty of people who have tried Skyline and decided it just wasn’t for them, most would say that they actually enjoyed the experience, once they got past the chili's initial appearance, of course (Obama liked it and hey, he's alright).

Skyline is known for containing both chocolate and cinnamon and being served over unseasoned spaghetti with a giant mountain of unnaturally orange, shredded cheddar cheese thrown on top. If you actually sit and think about how those flavors might mix, though, especially with the addition of hot sauce, you’ll start to see how good something so misunderstood can be.

Where did Skyline come from?

In 1949, a Greek immigrant named Nicholas Lambrinides started Skyline Chili after previously working at Empress Chili, another Cincinnati-style chili parlor. His secret recipe is stored in a bank vault and remains unchanged since his death in 1962. The company’s name came about as a result of the original location having a nice view of, you guessed it, the Cincinnati skyline.

How is Skyline different than other chili?

Unlike other versions of chili con carne, Skyline itself contains only meat, spices and water. There are no beans, however, you can have kidney beans added to you order should you desire them. Also, there are no onions in the chili itself, however, you can also have onions added to you order should you desire them. The chili does contain chocolate and cinnamon, which gives it a slight hint of sweetness that cuts through the savory nature of the cumin and chili powder, along with the vast amount of cheese that arrives on top.

How is Skyline served?

Believe it or not, you can order just a bowl of chili at Skyline. People do it. There are probably people who do it. Someone did it at least once. However, the two most popular vessels for Skyline consumption are in the form of cheese coneys (hot dog + bun + chili+ cheese, mustard + onion optional) and over spaghetti.

Cheese coneys are similar to the Coney Island dogs found in the northeast, Washington D.C. and in Detroit. However, Skyline's version comes with cheese. Really though, it’s the spaghetti that trips people up. There are three options for ordering Skyline in this fashion: a three-way (chili + cheese + spaghetti), a four-way (chili + cheese + spaghetti + onions or beans) and a five way (chili + cheese + spaghetti + onions + beans). There is no wrong choice when ordering, just make sure to have ample oyster crackers available when doing so.

Is Skyline visually appealing?

No, Skyline is not visually appealing and no, it doesn’t matter at all. Skyline is delicious at all hours of the day, but it's especially great after a long night out. Let's be honest, when you’ve had a beer, or five, do you really care how aesthetically pleasing your hot dogs covered in cheese and chili are? I didn’t think so.

How do you eat Skyline?

Cheese coneys are eaten by hand. They are messy. They are fun. They are perfect. Your three, four and five-ways are eaten with a fork. They are also messy. They are also fun. They are also perfect.

Where is Skyline served?

Skyline is now available in five states: Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Florida. While the majority of Skyline's locations are new and modern, none of them can compete with the company’s oldest location in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati. It’s been serving college students, high schoolers, families and everyone in between for decades and should never change. Seriously, please never change, Clifton Skyline. We live in a scary enough world as is. Skyline is also available at Great American Ballpark (home of the Reds) and Kings Island (home of The Beast and Vortex). While Skyline goes great with baseball, it goes less great with roller coasters.

Why is Skyline important?

While Cincinnati’s food scene continues to undergo a renaissance similar to those seen in neighboring Louisville and Cleveland, Skyline is still the first food that most people think of first when it comes to the Queen City and it’s the food that homesick Cincinnatians long for most. While Graeter’s Ice Cream, Adriatico’s Pizza and the many fine beers produced by both Rhinegeist and Madtree are all delicious, Skyline is the city’s culinary rallying cry and should be appreciated as such, even if those who haven’t had the pleasure of trying it do not agree.

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