If you have some time while in town, or maybe are local but have yet to experience these classics, Cincinnati has a deep, rich chili history. That’s right, chili! Cincinnati chili originated with immigrant restaurateurs from the Macedonian region who were trying to expand their customer base by moving beyond narrowly ethnic styles of cuisine. Today we pour it over everything from noodles to fries to hot dogs.
We encourage you to keep an open mind, have some fun exploring the city, and enjoy these classic chili parlors keeping the tradition alive.
Camp Washington Chili
Camp Washington Chili, named after the historic neighborhood where it is still located today, could not have been located in a more appropriate spot with it being home to Cincinnati’s Stockyards. Since opening the doors in 1940, employees strive daily to serve this award-winning chili tradition to each customer working the counter and ladles 24 hours around the clock.
Johnny Johnson, the patriarch of the Camp Washington Chili family, has been a constant part of that routine since 1951 when he immigrated to the United States from Greece.
This diner in St. Bernard opened in 1963 and its decor has retained that spare mid-century vibe. You half expect the cast of Alice to appear from behind the counter. The chili here is meaty and flavorful, and on the salty side, so it’s best ordered over spaghetti with cheese. Gluten free? Try their bunless coney: three wieners with chili, cheese, mustard, and onion. The cheese fries are a must.
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 ordinaire, try a slaw dog: a chili dog topped with creamy homemade coleslaw, or their exclusive six-way: spaghetti, chili, cheese, onions, beans, and fried jalapeño caps. BAC will serve you an eight-pound version of this dish as part of its No Freakin’ Way! Challenge; clean your plate in 60 minutes or less and it’s free.
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. If you go, plan ahead: Cretan’s is only open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday. And bring cash because they don’t take credit cards.
Empress first opened on Vine between Eight and Ninth streets in 1922, 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, Empress has gotten lost in the marketing sauce over the years and is down to just two parlors, one in Alexandria and one on Werk Road in Bridgetown, a small storefront tucked away in a strip mall next to The Pirates Den. All the usual suspects are represented on the menu. Don’t forget a side of their excellent Saratoga chips.
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 we visited that offers 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 with a tangy blend of onions, tomatoes, textured soy protein, and dried apples.
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. 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.
Pleasant Ridge Chili
Classic sign, check. Jukebox, check. Red vinyl booths, check. Generous portions, check. Line-up 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. 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. they only accept cash.