One of the men orders a large 3-way chili and a coney with cheese on the side, while his friend sitting on the stool next to him asks for three coneys with cheese, chili, and cheese on top. While I simply begin eating my coneys with just a mound full of cheese on top and a few dashes of hot sauce.
“I like it 80/20,” proclaims one of the workers at the counter. “I enjoy eating my coneys when I get home when just enough of the cheese has melted, roughly 20% of it.”
Probably nowhere else in the world is anyone having this conversation, but this is the home of Cincinnati-style chili. Like many other regional foods, this brand of beef, stock, tomato, and spices is headquartered here in many parlors that dot the hilly terrain of the city and surrounding suburbs.
Most Cincinnatians have pledged their allegiances to their favorite chili parlors. Gold Star Chili and Skyline Chili are the two major corporate chain parlors that have created division among local residents, but many find solace at the copious independent locations that include Empress, Blue Ash, Camp Washington, Price Hill, or the Blue Jay Restaurant.
The chili is poured over general amounts of spaghetti or miniature hot dogs on oval shaped plates, topped with larger amounts of finely shredded cheddar cheese. The most popular combination is called a 3-way and it includes spaghetti, chili, and cheese; a 4-way adds onions, and a 5-way includes beans.
The chili evolved and is now poured on top of French fries, macaroni and cheese, open faced burger, or wrapped inside a tortilla with cheese and Frito chips. There is even the alligator coney in Northern Kentucky that features chili, cheese, half a pickle spear, and mayonnaise.
However, something that is rarely ever heard of is eating the chili by itself in a bowl with a spoon. Perhaps it was never intended to be a thick and hearty type of concoction like one would expect elsewhere in the States, but more of a topping for hot dogs.
That is what Tom and John Kiradjieff did with their meat sauce in 1922 when they operated Empress Chili. The Macedonian-Greek immigrants added Mediterranean spices along with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg to ground beef and stock. Little did the two men know, but they were the inventing Cincinnati-style chili.
Their first parlor was opened adjacent to the Empress Theatre in downtown Cincinnati and if you were to look at the first menu, the coneys and spaghetti was not topped with cheese. That wouldn’t be until sometime in the next decade when a customer came in and asked for cheese on his coney.
Soon, other chili parlors opened throughout the area incorporating their own recipes and adding other items such as triple decker sandwiches and salads. The independent parlors featured open kitchens, bar stools, and plenty of conversation between employees and customers.
“Each neighborhood had its own chili parlor up until the 1960’s,” said Dan Woellert, author of The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili. “They created a food industry that’s a several million dollar industry and is as strong as ever.”
Wollert also added that this was around the same time that Gold Star and Skyline first began franchising and gathering an allegiance of customers who are now as devout about their chili as they are with their sports teams, politics, and favorite soda pop.
However, you won’t find a chili parlor outside of the area in many places. Skyline has franchised outlets in nearby Indianapolis, Indiana; Lexington, Kentucky; Dayton and Columbus, Ohio; and all the way south in Miami and Tampa, Florida.
An independent chili parlor debuted in Tacoma, Washington, this past year, but unlike other regional foods that can be found outside their area of origins, the chili parlor is destined to be 100% Cincinnati. Then again the chili wasn’t the local phenomenon when first introduced in 1922 according to Woellert.
“It took some time for it to become accepted throughout the area. It wasn’t until the first Skyline was franchised that you saw its popularity grow. They tried to broaden Skyline Chili elsewhere, and it just didn’t click, but it took a while here in Cincinnati.”
Coneys can also be found at Cincinnati area stadiums including Great American Ball Park, Paul Brown Stadium, Cintas Center, Nippert Stadium, Fifth Third Arena, and UC Health Stadium. At US Bank Arena, home of the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL, fans can enjoy chili on top of nachos and footlong hot dogs.
If you find yourself traveling through the Queen City enjoying a Reds, Bengals, FC Cincinnati, Xavier Musketeers, or Cincinnati Bearcats game, make sure you visit a local chili parlor and spend sometime soaking in the atmosphere and savoring the local tradition of chili.