Upon visiting Cincinnati, if you were to ask ten locals what you must eat, chances are at least nine of them would say Cincinnati chili. As much agreement as there is on what to eat, there would be equally as much disagreement on where you should eat it. Many family feuds have started over who has the best 3-way. More a sauce than a stand-alone soup, chili is to the Queen City what crawfish are to New Orleans and what pizza is to New York.
Cincinnati chili’s roots date all the way back to 1922, when two Greek immigrants, Tom and John Kiradjieff, opened their chili “parlor” next door to the Empress Burlesque Theater. The original Empress Chili on Vine Street, downtown, is no more, but they still have two local parlors (they chose this term to differentiate them from full-service restaurants and convey a focus on chili alone) and laid the groundwork for a movement that would take the city by storm. In fact, it was so popular that employees of Empress left and founded a couple of their own chili chains that became titans in the genre.
In honor of National Chili Day, we decided to bring you our ranking of the best chili parlors in Cincinnati. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of chili joints in greater Cincy, so we narrowed it down to five of the biggest players. We graded the cheese coney and 3-way at each spot, with 10 points available for each, and also scored them on menu variety and overall experience, at 5 points apiece, for a maximum of 30 points. If there’s one thing we learned in all this, it’s that no one parlor does everything right, and they’re all pretty darn good. In an ideal world, we would’ve done a blind tasting, but it was just not feasible without doing carryout and seriously compromising the quality of the product. Did we overthink all of this? Probably. However, if there’s anything I take too seriously, it’s food. Without further ado, here are the rankings:
5) Gold Star Chili: 21.5/30. Founded originally as a hamburger spot in 1965 by four brothers from Jordan, Gold Star is one of the two giants of Cincinnati Chili and the official chili of the Cincinnati Bengals. As a fierce rival of the other chili giant, Skyline, feelings are usually hot or cold on Gold Star, just as they were in our tasting. I gave them high marks while Kevin didn’t have a great time, particularly with his coney that basically fell apart in his hands. My coney was constructed perfectly, and their chili is among my favorites. They cook the dog on a flat top, which is far superior to boiling it, as some others on this list do. The staff weren’t exactly thrilled to see me, but the service was attentive. They have great burgers, a good menu, and locations all over Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.
4) Camp Washington Chili: 21.67/30. Opened in 1940 by, you guessed it, a Greek immigrant, Camp Washington has never had more than one restaurant. With a retro diner feel and a mile-long list of accolades, including a James Beard Award as a Regional American Classic, this place is regarded by many as the place to get chili in the city. The score is deceptive. There was agreement that Camp Washington has the best-tasting chili of all. It is spiced beautifully with touch of heat, which is unusual for Cincinnati chili. They have gyros, burgers, and other non-chili items. The downside was the terrible service and the lack of cleanliness. Used drink cups sat in front of me at the counter throughout the meal, the floor and counter stools were covered in fallen scraps of food, and our server was loudly complaining to anyone who would listen that she was too busy, and that she could use more helpful coworkers. Heck, none of the five or six employees on duty bothered to acknowledge our presence for ten or so minutes. Even a slight improvement in service and cleanliness would put Camp Washington at or near the top.
3) Dixie Chili: 22.5/30. Dixie came along in 1928, after an employee at Empress who had emigrated from Greece decided to open his own shop in Kentucky, so as not to be in competition with his former employer. Though there have been expansions and updates, the original location in Newport is still open, in addition to three others in Northern Kentucky. I grew up eating Dixie, and it still is my go-to for many reasons. Their coneys are great, but their chili lacks the depth of flavor of some other places. However, they do cheese better than anyone. It’s tangy, salty, and piled high. And the bun is pillow-soft. I had some inconsistency in my 3-way, with some noodles being uncooked. They have great gyros, a wide array of deli sandwiches, and several pies. At Dixie, you order at the counter and take your food with you to the table, but the staff take care of cleaning up when you’re done.
2) Blue Ash Chili: 23.67/30. Blue Ash Chili opened in 1965, a relatively late arrival on the chili scene in town. They have three brick and mortar locations and a food truck. Guy Fieri featured BAC on Diners, Drive-Ins, Dives, and it’s easy to see why. They have a great non-chili menu, including some delicious sandwich options, breakfast, and cocktails. Yes, cocktails. Beer is one thing, but cocktails are unheard of at a chili parlor. They also offer the unique option of adding fried jalapeno bottle caps to any coney or 3-way. This is a game-changer. I cannot recommend them enough. Their dogs are made locally by Queen City Sausage, but we all agree they’re a little small. Our experience here was fantastic. Our server, a 10-year employee, advised us he likes to drop the weiner in the fryer to get a little crisp on it. Unsolicited, he had the kitchen whip up a coney with the fried dog and gave it to us free of charge. What a great gesture and, yes, it was excellent. Their chili is the thickest of all, not the slightest bit watery, though many Cincinnatian’s would tell you that is a flaw, not a feature.
1) Skyline Chili: 24.33/30 Skyline was opened in 1949 by a Greek immigrant who used his time working at the original Empress Chili to perfect his own recipe. With locations in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Florida, Skyline is the most recognizable Cincinnati chili brand and the official chili of the Cincinnati Reds. If you have the chance, visit the Skyline in the Gaslight District of Clifton, near the University of Cincinnati. It’s the oldest Skyline that’s still in its original building so it has a throwback feel, inside and out. It is not uncommon for someone who grew up eating Skyline to have never had Gold Star, or vice versa. It is the perpetual debate among Cincinnatians. Their coney is the gold standard, a uniquely flavored chili, a bigger-than-most dog, cooked on a flat top and a mound of delicious cheese. Their chili is very watery, so their 3-way isn’t my favorite, but I’m generally a coney guy anyway. The restaurant was clean, especially given how busy it was, and the service was friendly. It was a real treat.
There you have it, our semi-scientific but absolutely infallible ranking of the most notable chili parlors in Cincinnati. You really can’t go wrong with any of these if you’re looking to get a taste of the city. You don’t have to love it, but you definitely have to try it.
What’s your favorite Cincinnati chili parlor? Leave a comment below.