For many Americans, the thought of a chili dinner conjures up a thick, hearty stew hailing from Texas. That is chili con carne, and if it’s what you expect upon sitting down at one of greater Cincinnati’s hundreds of chili parlors, you’re in for a surprise.
In Ohio, locals aren’t wild for Western-style cowboy chow. The bases of both dishes include ground beef and tomato paste, but the similarities stop there. In Cincinnati chili, ingredients like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, cumin, cocoa, and Worcestershire sauce give it a quality akin to a thin, spiced meat sauce. Naturally, ordering a plain bowl of sauce is ludicrous. As standard protocol, parlors place chili atop a steaming pile of spaghetti. This is called a two-way.
More likely, you’ll begin the meal by asking your server for a three-way: spaghetti, Cincinnati chili, and shredded cheddar cheese. Requesting a four-way adds diced, raw white onions, and a five-way includes both onions and red kidney beans. In any given eatery, the protocol remains fairly consistent. There is no side of cornbread. You’ll get oyster crackers, which you can sprinkle on top, along with hot sauce.
The mashup of ingredients (and provocative terminology) suggests Cincinnati chili is some late-night dorm room experiment gone viral. In actuality, it’s been around since 1922. A Macedonian immigrant developed the dish after Greek food failed to entice the area’s largely German population. His venture into more accessible cuisine gave way to “spaghetti chili” topped with cheese. Eventually, his former employees started their own companies, including Skyline and Gold Star, which are currently the biggest Cincinnati chili parlor chains.
Locals eat thousands of plates of their namesake chili every day. It’s nine-figure business around Cincinnati. If you’re on board with spaghetti, bolognese, and grated cheese, you’ll understand the appeal—just don’t anticipate chili con carne. And if you can’t bring yourself to ask your server for an any-way, order a Coney. It’s chili on top of a hotdog.
Need to Know
Skyline and Gold Star are the two biggest chains of Cincinnati chili parlors. Their outposts are clustered around the greater Cincinnati metro area and Northern Kentucky, but Skyline also has locations in Indiana and Florida. Other popular chains include Dixie Chili, in Kentucky, and the Hard Times Cafe in the Washington, DC, area.
Where to Try It
Camp Washington Chili3005 Colerain Ave, Cincinnati, Ohio, 45225, United States
This non-chain chili parlor has been in operation since 1940. It's open 24 hours a day, six days a week.
Empress Chili3670 Werk Rd, Cincinnati, Ohio, 45248, United States
The restaurant that started Cincinnati chili (though not the same location)