In Cincinnati, chili is a beloved local favorite and one of the regional dishes visitors to the city will definitely want to try. But the way Cincinnati serves up chili may take newcomers by surprise. For one thing, it's served on a plate rather than a bowl. For another, the chili is sandwiched between a mound of spaghetti and a pile of cheddar cheese. Created by two Macedonian brothers who opened the Empress Chili Parlor in 1922, this distinctive local chili was defined by the brothers' Mediterranean heritage and cooked with spices like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, giving it its distinctive flavor profile. The classic 5-way Cincinnati chili comes with spaghetti, chili, cheese, beans and diced onions but diners can customize theirs any way they choose from one-way on up.
A City With a Lock on Great Chili
By some counts, more than 200 restaurants specialize in serving signature, Cincinnati-style chili in the tri-state area surrounding Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. Chili parlors have been rising around the Queen City for nearly a century. But with so many options, where is a traveler to go to find the best chili in Cincinnati? These staple spots won't steer you wrong.
Camp Washington Chili
A James Beard winner for American regional classics, this 24-hour per day Cincinnati icon is still serving chili six days per week, just as it has since 1940. Locals know Camp Washington Chili as “the Godfather of them all,” a classic chili spot whose blend of Greek herbs and spices tingle tastebuds from early morning hours to the latest of late nights. Camp Washington’s 5-way remains a top choice for locals, even 75 years after the restaurant opened its doors.
When Tom and John Kiradjieff blended Mediterranean spices with spaghetti noodles, chopped onions, shredded cheese and kidney beans beside downtown’s Empress Theatre in 1922, they transformed Cincinnati forever. Their restaurant, Empress Chili, is often dubbed the originator of Cincinnati chili. Today, the 3-way remains the most popular item at Empress, followed closely by the classic cheese Coney.
Price Hill Chili
When it comes to Cincinnati's west side, chili doesn't get more iconic than the dishes emanating from the kitchen at Price Hill Chili. The sprawling restaurant now hosts more than 400 seats, but it began with just 12 stools and a handful of tables in 1961. Don't be surprised to see variety here. Price Hill Chili may have built its reputation on Cincinnati's signature dish, but regulars know the double decker burgers, omelets and signature sandwiches are also the stuff of legend.
Blue Ash Chili
Chili goes the extra mile at Blue Ash Chili. This iconic chili chain boasts a reputation for some of the best double decker burgers in town, and its 6-way option adds fried jalapeño caps to the traditional 5-way of chili, spaghetti, beans, onions and cheese. Blue Ash has spread to three locations — all on the north side of the Cincinnati metro area — plus a food truck that can roam anywhere.
There’s a saying in Cincinnati: “The Big Red Machine, the Bengals and Skyline.” That a chili spot has resonated so much in Cincinnati lore — enough to garner mention alongside the legendary Reds baseball team and the city's beloved NFL franchise — speaks to Skyline Chili’s widespread appeal. According to legend, the chili recipe at Skyline originated in the small city of Kastoria, Greece, before making its way to the Midwest. Once it hit local palates, the recipe helped Skyline blossom into a now ubiquitous chain with more than 150 locations.
Silver Ladle founder Tim Labrinides knows a thing or two about the chili game — his great grandfather, Nicholas, founded Skyline Chili way back in 1949. And though he grew up on the family recipe, Labrinides saw an opportunity to expand the traditional Cincinnati chili flavor. In 2012, he opened Silver Ladle as a way to add chicken and black bean chilis alongside the beloved beef variety. At Silver Ladle, they proudly serve chili on just about everything imaginable including spaghetti, mixed greens, French fries, a burrito and tortilla chips.
The Blue Jay Restaurant
The Blue Jay's dark, wood panelling and padded vinyl seats have hardly changed since the Northside diner opened more than 50 years ago. Then, as now, The Blue Jay serves up homemade meals with copious quantities of Cincinnati chili alongside an all-day breakfast, mega-sized sandwiches and hand-crafted pies. This vintage restaurant is still widely known for a classic 3-way that has had patrons returning regularly for five decades.
Pleasant Ridge Chili
Gravy cheese fries and the famous 5-way top the list of signature items at Pleasant Ridge Chili. At 54 years old, this Montgomery Road diner is a spring chicken by Cincinnati chili standards, but five decades is more than enough time to build a cult following. Pleasant Ridge Chili still serves up traditional Cincinnati chili specialties from a lone location with an intimate, authentic feel that is as memorable as the signature spices simmering in every pot.
Bard's Burgers & Chili
Maybe not officially in Cincinnati but worth a look, Bard's Burgers and Chili is located just over the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati, in Latonia, Kentucky, and has city residents jumping across state lines for Cincinnati classics coupled with Kentucky sweets like deep fried Oreo cookies and authentic sweet tea.
Gold Star Chili
One of Cincinnati's two most iconic chili chains, Gold Star Chili was founded in 1965 by four brothers from Jordan — Fahhad, Fahid, Basheer and Bishara Daoud. What began as a burger joint soon morphed into a regional phenomenon with more than 85 locations, each one still utilizing the secret blend of spices used by the Daoud brothers some five decades ago. Though the original Gold Star location has since changed hands, you can still enjoy a 3-way across the street from the original location at Gold Star's Mount Washington location.