Skyline Chili, and Cincinnati Chili in General, Explained by a Local As Best She Can

Cincinnati chili was invented 100 years ago, and it is extremely tired of your rude comments.

Homemade Cincinnati chili spaghetti with cheddar cheese and chopped onion
Photo: Brent Hofacker / Getty Images

Skyline Chili is a perfect food and I will tolerate no slander of it. We can agree that sauce-like clove-nutmeg-cinnamon-and-god-knows-what-else-infused Cincinnati chili bears little resemblance to the bean-studded or beef-chunked stews that other regions of this great land might recognize as chili. But that's no justification for the torrent of bile Cincinnati chili receives from those unaccustomed to its pleasures. (Deadspin notoriously called it "the worst regional foodstuff in America or anywhere else" and "abominable garbage-gravy." ) But to those of us who grew up in the Greater Cincinnati area, this stuff is mother's milk — Mama's Cookies, even; it's a Cincinnati thing, look it up — and it's the pride of the Queen City, alongside Graeter's ice cream, goetta, and LaRosa's pizza. I specify "Greater Cincinnati area" because I'm technically from across the Ohio River in Northern Kentucky, but in my defense, so is the Cincinnati Airport, and you can take it up with them. I'll be over here eating my Skyline Chili three-way (I'll explain) with an oyster cracker and hot sauce chaser.

Where did Cincinnati chili come from?

The history of Cincinnati chili is — like many of the best things in American culture — an immigrant story. According to food historian Dann Woellert's gloriously comprehensive book The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili (he is also the author of Cincinnati Goetta, Cincinnati Candy, Historic Restaurants of Cincinnati, and Cincinnati Wine: An Effervescent History so yeah, the man knows his local lore) in 1920, brothers Tom and John Kiradjieff immigrated from Hroupisa, Macedonia, (now a part of Northern Greece) to Cincinnati, where their older brother Argie had established himself as a grocer two years prior. The downtown area in which the brothers settled had become an enclave for Macedonian men who had immigrated during pre-World War I unrest. When the younger brothers set up shop as the Empress Chili Parlor in a corner of the Empress Burlesk theater building in 1922, they had a built-in audience, hungry for the flavors of home. American diners were already familiar with chili-topped Coney Island hot dogs, but the Kiradjieff brothers put their own spin on it, adapting a Mediterranean stew spiced with cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon, and adding chili powder along with other spices they'd grown up with. According to Woellert, this was like nothing the majority Germanic population had ever tasted, and a local obsession was born.

Is there chocolate in Cincinnati chili?

When you grow up in the Greater Cincinnati area like I did, where coneys and three-ways (Ipromise to explain soon) were in regular rotation in the school cafeteria, and chili-centric restaurants are "parlors" and you don't know why they'd be called anything else, it's passed along as fact that Cincinnati chili is based on Greek dishes like moussaka and pastichio (here's our recipe). Plenty of food writers have run with that theory, and there are a wealth of Greek-Americans in the local chili biz, but Woellert rejects that theory. His argument is that the components of the dish that draw that comparison — for instance, the cheese that blankets any respectable Cincinnati chili concoction — came much later, and the only elements the chili itself shares with pastichio are cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. According to his research, the original menu consisted of plain chili dogs and chili spaghetti (familiar American fare at the time), and all other adaptations — such as the chili being served atop the pasta rather than mixed in, and the aforementioned cheddar cloud — came at the request of Empress customers. The chili, Woellert asserts, is an Americanized Slavic-Mediterranean stew, adapted to meet local tastes, not a moussaka nor a pastichio descendent. (I dunno, fight me at the Cincinnati Airport. Loser buys us both lunch at the Gold Star Chili in the food court.)

And while we're busy busting myths, though plenty of "copycat" online recipes include chocolate or cocoa powder, when Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Kathrine Nero queried local chili parlor owners as to the contents of their proprietary spice blends, not a single one copped to including it. This revelation flies in the face of everything I was taught growing up, and my reality is now crumbling like so many oyster crackers — another crucial component of my ideal three-way, and I promise, we're almost there.

Got it, but where did Skyline Chili come from?

Before long, Empress wasn't the only chili game in town. According to the Dixie Chili website, in 1928, a Greek immigrant named Nicholas Sarakatsannis stopped into Empress Chili looking for work and the owner (presumably one of the Kiradjieff brothers) told him to put on an apron. Over the course of the next few months, Sarakatsannis perfected his own chili recipe, found a space on the Kentucky side of the river in Newport so as not to compete, and set up shop there as Dixie Chili. In 1940, the James Beard America's Classics Award-winning Camp Washington Chili firmly planted its trotters near the stockyards that gave the city its nickname "Porkopolis." Just a few years after that, Nicholas Lambrinides left Kastoria, Greece, to seek his fortune in America, opening the doors of his first Skyline Chili restaurant atop Price Hill on Cincinnati's West Side in 1949. In 1964, Jordanian brothers Dave, Charlie, Frank, and Basheer Daoud pooled their money to buy the Hamburger Heaven restaurant on the East Side of town, and by 1965, they changed the name to reflect their obsession with their standout dish: Gold Star Chili. These places — and myriad others like Pleasant Ridge Chili (1964), Chili Time (1969), and more — remain open to this day (sadly, beloved newcomer OTR Chili closed in April 2022, just short of its second anniversary).

How do you order Cincinnati chili with confidence?

Each chili parlor may vary in its spice blend and presentation — a bay leaf here, some cumin there — but they share a lingua franca in the form of (finally!) the "way" system. This began as shorthand slang for servers in chili parlors, and is codified as such:

One-way: Just a bowl of chili. Order it like that if you want, but you're missing out. And no one calls it a "one way."

Two-way: Chili plus spaghetti. Which is fine, but unless you're avoiding dairy or are allergic to joy, this is not why you're here. Again, "two-way" isn't really a thing; just call it chili spaghetti.

Three-way: This is where it gets good. This is chili spaghetti, topped with a nimbus of fluffy, shredded cheddar.It's perfectly fine to stop here. This is golden glory.

Four-way: This can go one of two ways, adding either onions or beans to determine how the rest of the day is going to go for you.

Five-way: All bets are off. You're getting both onions and beans and bless your heart.

Moving on to the bunned stuff:

Coney: This will get you a chili dog on a bun, might include mustard, and unless you're asked, is going to be topped with onions. Depending on the parlor's nomenclature, this might be called a "regular coney."

Cheese coney: That chili dog has a cheese halo, lucky you.

Chili sandwich: Pretty much what it sounds like, but it's a more generous helping of chili.

Chili-cheese sandwich: You've got the hang of this.

Alligator or lizard: Specifics will vary, but this generally means there's a dill pickle spear alongside the dog on that bun.

How do you eat Cincinnati chili without people being mean to you?

A word of caution if you're eating any manner of chili spaghetti in public: I once saw my mother be excoriated by a fellow patron at a Skyline, not for ordering incorrectly, but for twirling her spaghetti with a fork rather than cutting it into bites with a knife. There's local pride, and then there's just being a jerk. (I challenged him to a fistfight at the Cincinnati Airport but I assume he got lost coming across the river.)

Why are people so mean about Cincinnati chili in general?

Then again, not to excuse this man's behavior toward my mom — a woman of Italian descent who didn't move to the region until she was in her early 30s so of course she twirled — but when the regional specialty you hold dear is regularly maligned, you get a tad defensive of it. Anthony Bourdain called Cincinnati chili "a mutant hybrid." A Tennessee Titans fan made headlines carrying a "Cincinnati Chili Sucks" sign at a recent NFL playoff game against the Bengals (who WON, thank you very much). New York Mets play-by-play commentator's Gary Cohen's comment about "disgusting chili gravy" trended on Twitter, and even Cincinnati Enquirer editor Dan Horn got in on the act, coming in hot with a column in which he stated "I hate Cincinnati chili."

I try not to take it personally, but I do. An ugly baby is still someone's kid.

That aforementioned Deadspin article in particular got under my skin. The sports news site isn't actually known for its subtle takes, but the writer went all-in on his animus toward Cincinnati chili, calling it "abominable garbage-gravy" and "horrifying diarrhea sludge." He even said Skyline Chiliperverted what should have been "an ethnic curio born of immigrant make-do" into a "a hulking private-equity-owned corporate monolith that gins up interest in its unmistakably abhorrent product."One person's "bad-tasting Z-grade atrocity" is the thing that another person (me) serves at her wedding as a celebration of where she's from. Even world-class curmudgeon Fran Lebowitz is on record as a fan.

Can you get Skyline Chili even if you're not in Cincinnati?

At home in Brooklyn, surrounded by glorious foodstuffs, I still get Skyline Chili shipped to me in cans (though have been delighted when my dad has sent me Dixie, Empress, and Gold Star as well) and hoard it for myself; other people may not like or understand it, and I can't bear to see a single drop wasted. And when I go back to Cincinnati — rare these days, but it happens — I fly into that airport, then hit the nearest Skyline Chili. I fiddle with the signature blue straw at my table as I wait for my three-way to arrive, heaped in cheese and smelling as nostalgic to me as the perfume my mom wore. After the last forkable bite of spaghetti, I'll tear open the packet of oyster crackers that comes alongside, and smash them into the last smears of chili on the plate. Some people mix those oyster crackers in at the start, others dab them in hot sauce individually as a palate cleanser between bites. It's not for me to judge. That's the great thing about Cincinnati chili: You get to enjoy it your way.

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