February 22, 2018
Cincinnati is steeped in German heritage, yet it’s most famous and unique dish comes from Slavic Macedonians, with roots in Northern Greece, who arrived in the Queen City starting in the late 1800s.
One such immigrant was Argie Kiradjieff who came to Cincinnati in 1918 according to The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili by Dann Woellert. He wound up in the grocery business with a store at 842 West Fifth St. His success paved the way for his younger brothers, Tom and John Kiradjieff, to come to America in 1921, and within a year, on October 24, 1922, they opened Empress Chili taking the name from the Empress Burlesk Building in which the restaurant was located. Their most popular dish turned out to be meat cooked in a sauce derived from a recipe from the Old Country, served with spaghetti noodles.
At first, the pats was cooked with the meat and sauce but customers soon asked for the concoction to be served over the noodles. The “way” system followed in an attempt to expedite service at Empress, particularly during the busy lunch rush.
The idea to place the chili over hot dogs didn’t come until the 1930s, though Greek and Macedonian immigrants in New York City had been doing this since the early 1900s, dubbing their creation “coneys,” which is the name that was used here as well.
Today, Greater Cincinnati has over 250 chili parlors, more per square mile than any other city in the world. Most of those are Skyline restaurants (over 150) or Gold Star (around 90), with rest being smaller chains, such as Dixie Chili, or single locations like as Pleasant Ridge Chili, Blue Ash Chili, Camp Washington Chili, Park Chili Parlor, Price Hill Chili, Chili Time, and the Blue Jay Restaurant. All are well known to local chili connoisseurs.
Out of towners and transplants, not surprisingly, often refer to it as Skyline at first, thanks to that chain’s large regional footprint. However, those folks soon take sides and pick favorites among the other parlors just as Tristaters have done for generations. Indeed, America has gradually become more familiar with Cincinnati-style chili thanks to exposure in national media outlets such as The New York Times and the Food Network.
Of course, the first thing the uninitiated learn about Cincinnati chili is that it is not, in fact, chili--- at least not what the rest of the country thinks of as chili. For most North Americans, chili is chili con carne or Texas-style chili.
Photo: Brelleville USA
Oddy, while Texas-style chili became popular via the chili parlor, it’s Cincinnati chili that carries on this tradition today.
Diners expecting that when first trying the Cincinnati version often feel ambushed and aren’t sure what to make of the local variety. Some hate it, while others are hooked immediately.
“One of the first places friends took me when I arrived to work at summer camp in Cincinnati was Skyline,” says Brian Mitchell who moved here from Scotland in the early ‘90s. “They warned me it wasn't like other chili. I fell in love with the first bite. Three-way and a chili cheese sandwich was my go to.”
Years later, Mitchell and his sons, native Cincinnatians of course, embarked on a chili tour. “We visited many many chili parlors,” he says. “Loved Camp Washington almost as much as Skyline. Met the owner one day as he sat and chatted with my boys. Cool moment. The later history of Cincinnati is tied to the history of Cinci chili. The city is connected to it.”
The Mitchells now live in Jacksonville, Florida where satisfying that chili craving can be a challenge. “We have a four-hour drive to St. Pete to hit up a Skyline but only a five-minute drive to the grocery to pick up some frozen chili. We still have Chili nights often at the Mitchell household.”
You can see Mitchell and his sons, Aiden and Brennan, as well as Cincy Shirts' own P.F. and Hannah, enjoying some Pleasant Ridge Chili on the Travel Channel’s Food Paradise.
The history of most of the local chili parlors, large and small, intertwine as most Cincinnati natives know. Skyline began in 1948 when Nicholas Lambrinides, a Greek immigrant, and former Empress employee, opened his own chili parlor.
In 1963, the four Daoud brothers, immigrants from Jordan, bought the Hamburger Heaven restaurant in Mt. Washington from a former Empress employee. They found the chili recipe and began serving that as well as burgers. They quickly discovered that the chili was far more popular than the burgers and Gold Star Chili was born in 1965. That original location was torn down in the early 2000s and is now the site of a bank, however, a new Gold Star location sits across the street.
A study in the late 1980s conducted by Gold Star showed that 80 percent of area residents reported eating Cincinnati-style chili at least once a week, a number that has no doubt grown as Tristaters continue to embrace this unique part of the city’s heritage.
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