→Cincinnati chili is best served with crackers, hot sauce, Formica, and fluorescent lighting. Many parlors add a dose of 1950s sock hop flair with checkered tile floors and red vinyl stools. Ernest Hemingway’s 1933 story title pretty much nails what we’re after in a chili parlor: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”… that serves some damn good chili.
With all due respect to Skyline and Gold Star, we feel it’s only right to tout some of the area’s smaller neighborhood chili parlors. Like fine wine, they get better with age.
Originally published in the issue of November 2016; updated and expanded March 2018
Blue Ash Chili
While BAC also has locations in Mason and Springdale, the flagship is packed with personality. Classic record albums and kitschy signage line the walls, and the booths are kitted out with mini jukeboxes. They offer breakfast, double-decker sandwiches, burgers, and other diner fare, plus they have a liquor license. Guy Fieri visited in 2010 as part of his Food Network show Diners, Drive-ins & Dives, and BAC pays homage on their menu with Guy’s Way, a bowl of plain chili with onions and crackers. If that sounds a bit too ordinary, try a slaw dog (chili dog topped with creamy homemade coleslaw) or their exclusive six-way (spaghetti, chili, cheese, onions, beans, and fried jalapeño caps).
9565 Kenwood Rd., Blue Ash, (513) 984-6107, blueashchili.com
Camp Washington Chili
With sassy red, white, and black decor and walls plastered with local chili swag, this 24-hour institution (opened in 1940) naturally nails coneys, five-ways, and chili fries but also makes a mean Greek salad with sliced gyro meat. Because nothing beats a salad at 4 a.m., right? CWC has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation as an America’s Classics award winner, praised for its “timeless appeal” and serving “quality food that reflects the character” of its community.
3005 Colerain Ave., Camp Washington, (513) 541-0061, campwashingtonchili.com
This St. Bernard diner opened in 1963, and its decor has retained that spare mid-century vibe. The chili here is meaty and flavorful and on the salty side, so it’s best ordered over spaghetti with cheese (oh, the palate-balancing genius of this holy trinity). Chili Time uses a slightly thicker-gauge noodle than you’ll find at Skyline, but there’s plenty of chili and cheese loaded on top to maintain balance. Gluten free? Try their bunless coney: three wieners with chili, cheese, mustard, and onion. Check to see if Streetpops, located across the street, is open and stop in to quell the rising tide of heartburn with a newfangled dessert.
4727 Vine Street., St. Bernard, (513) 641-1130
This time machine (with laudable chili) will transport you back to 1948. A sign over a row of wooden booths reads: “Please do not sit one in a booth between 11:30 and 1,” a reminder of the days when the place accommodated throngs of shift workers on their lunch break. No such worry now; Cretan’s and its regular customers are in their dotage, but conversation over four-ways (there is no fifth way here) keeps contemporary. The parlor remains spick-and-span, the chili is subtly spiced, the crackers snap, and your waitress even offers to top off our pops. If you go, plan ahead: Cretan’s is open only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. And bring cash because they don’t take credit cards. You’re stepping back in time, remember?
7039 Vine St., Carthage, (513) 821-1203
This red, white, and blue beacon on Monmouth Street in Newport (there are also outposts in Erlanger and Covington) hews pretty closely to the retro style of many a chili parlor, but with a few unique riffs both on and off the menu. Place your order at the register, grab a cafeteria-style tray, and slide it down the counter to receive your order. Then grab a table near their classic jukebox or outside—Dixie is the only spot on this offering chili al fresco. Tuck into a classic coney or try the Chili Man Dip for two: Philly cream cheese, mashed pinto beans, chili, chopped onions, topped with shredded cheese and parsley and served with tortilla chips. Dixie also offers a vegetarian chili (if you like that sort of thing) with a tangy blend of onions, tomatoes, textured soy protein, and dried apples. Can’t decide? Dixie sells a 3-oz. “taste of chili” for $1.99.
733 Monmouth St, Newport, (859) 291-5337, dixiechili.com
If Camp Washington Chili is the Queen City’s big daddy, then Empress is her grande dame. Empress originally opened in 1922 on Vine Street downtown between Eighth and Ninth, making Greek brothers Tom and John Kiradjieff the first to strike Cincinnati chili gold. They named their parlor after the Empress burlesque theater next door. Despite its history (and a terrific logo), Empress has gotten lost in the marketing sauce over the years and is now down to just two parlors. All the usual suspects are represented on the menu. It’s our belief that everything is better with Fritos, so try their Walking Taco: chili over Fritos, topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, and sour cream. Don’t forget a side of their excellent Saratoga chips to keep things crunchy.
7934 Alexandria Pike, Alexandria, (859) 635-5900, empresschilialexandria.com; also 3670 Werk Rd., Delhi Twp., (513) 922-3311
Pleasant Ridge Chili
Classic sign, check. Jukebox, check. Red vinyl booths, check. Generous portions, check. Lineup of non-chili diner classics, check. Pleasant Ridge Chili embodies the best of the chili parlor vibe without drifting into kitsch. Some social media commentators give the brown gravy cheese fries here high marks, but if your preferred gravy is chili, you can get a ladle full of PRC’s family recipe on those fries instead. Most chili dishes are available as half-portions, in case you’re eating light (right!). PRC has been a neighborhood staple since 1964, and their lunch crowd is as diverse as the environs. Being open from 9 a.m. until 4:30 a.m. also wins PRC a lot of love. Beware: Cash only.
6032 Montgomery Rd., Pleasant Ridge, (513) 531-2365, pleasantridgechili.com
Price Hill Chili
Since opening on Glenway Avenue in 1962, Price Hill Chili has become more than a restaurant. It’s a west side community center, power breakfast spot, post-church lunch hub, and game day destination. “Elder Corner” and “Heart of the Hill” are duly earned monikers. Think of it as the village green, with chili. In a city full of deep-rooted chili joints, PHC has added to its family tree by scooping up the hearts and minds of west-siders who come for the solid diner food and convivial atmosphere. In addition to PHC’s dining room and patio area (not quite outdoor dining, but with plenty of sliding glass doors) you can sidle up to their full service bar, the Golden Fleece, and order anything from Price Hill Chili’s extensive menu, which naturally includes all the usual ways and means of their popular take on Queen City chili.
4920 Glenway Ave., Price Hill, (513) 471-9507, pricehillchili.com