Cincinnati chili has been a constant in our lives. We’ve never known a time before it was available over spaghetti with mountains of cheese at chili parlors, on hot dogs with mustard and onion at ball games, and in cans and freezer aisles ready to satisfy at-home cravings. It has inspired heated debate—is it chili, is it meat sauce, who makes it best—but chili is undeniably a Queen City food icon.
For its creation, we owe a debt of gratitude to Empress Chili and the brothers Kiradjieff. In 1922, immigrants Tom and John began serving a tangy meat sauce with Mediterranean spices over spaghetti to hungry show-goers funneling in from the Empress burlesque theater downtown. The popular restaurant went on to become a local chain that inspired many versions of its signature dish at more than 250 chain and independent parlors. The original Empress Chili may be long gone, but a single location remains in Alexandria, Kentucky, to serve those seeking the original Cincinnati chili.
“I absolutely think it’s an icon,” says current Empress owner Steve Martin. “Different areas have their unique food items, and [when] you think of Cincinnati, chili is the first item that comes to mind.” His fondest memories at Empress include late night chili runs after band gigs in high school, and he started his first franchise in 1985 at age 23. Running the business has always been a family affair—Martin’s parents, siblings, and 29 nieces and nephews have all worked in the parlor at some point. “Now, other employees that were like family, their children are now starting to work in the store,” Martin says.
Like its family dynamic, Empress hasn’t changed what goes in the pot for 100 years, including the secret blend of spices that comes from the Kiradjieffs’ homeland. Martin himself has eaten chili nearly every day for 37 years, be it a three-way, four-way, or some classic coneys: “I mix it up since I eat it so much.” Tastes surely change over a century, but will our love for Cincinnati chili endure another 100 years? “I think it just keeps growing,” Martin says. “We’ve got people moving in from out of the area…who have never heard of it, and all of a sudden they seem to like it. They think of it being not what they’re used to, and then discover the good taste of a Cincinnati-style chili.”
Empress Chili, 7934 Alexandria Pike, Alexandria, (859) 635-5900,