The untold truth of Skyline Chili

Cincinnati is a city of contradictions and cultural clashes, managing to combine a small-town sensibility with urban amenities and Southern flair with Midwestern practicality.

That's also a pretty solid description of the city's most famous regional food. Cincinnati chili, the dish spooned up at the wildly popular regional franchise Skyline Chili, is alternately beloved and hated. Sought after by rabid fans and passionately hated by at least one Deadspin reporter, the meat-based chili is sweet, strange, and often served atop a bed of spaghetti.

Despite its fame, Skyline Chili remains something of a mystery. Cincinnati locals fight about its secret ingredient (Bay leaf powder? Cinnamon? Chocolate?), while the rest of the country wonders if it's even chili at all. Let's take a look behind the curtain at one of the country's most notorious regional foods, from its origins as a highly guarded family secret to its unholy rebirth as a craft cocktail.

It has Greek roots

Greek immigrant Nicholas Lambrinides grew up watching his family create dishes in his village of Kastoria, Greece. After immigrating to Cincinnati, he worked as a cook for a railroad, and also cut his teeth in the business at the Empress Chili parlor before he left to launch Skyline. Lambrinides and his sons launched the first Skyline Chili restaurant in downtown Cincinnati in 1949. And when he did finally strike out on his own, Lambrinides went truly rogue with his signature mix of flavors. His secret family recipe for chili soon became the best-known regional dish in the city.

The story of Skyline Chili is the quintessential example of a cultural melting pot. With the soupy base of Midwestern stews, a hodgepodge of Mediterranean flavors, a pile of Italian noodles, and an original fan base of mostly German immigrants, Skyline Chili is the perfect illustration of how cultural influences can affect regional cuisines.

The secret ingredient sparked rumors

Unlike its Texas cousin, chili con carne, Skyline Chili doesn't come with beans or onions unless you ask for them. Instead, the basic recipe includes only water, meat, and spices. Tourists who try Skyline Chili for the first time are often shocked by its unique blend of seasonings, which has been said to include cumin, Worcestershire sauce, paprika, vinegar, cloves… and something distinctly sweet.

Some think the ingredient that gives Skyline Chili its characteristic sweetness is cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, or even chocolate or cocoa. But the founders' lips—and those of their successors'—are firmly sealed.

And when Skyline founders said the recipe was a secret, they weren't being coy or cute. A reporter at the Cincinnati Enquirer quoted the last remaining Skyline founder, William Nicholas "Bill" Lambrinides, as saying, "It's a secret. We cannot mention any names," with a definitive air of gravity.

Up until Lambrinides died in 2015 at 87, the recipe had been locked away. Even franchise owners weren't allowed to know what's really in the chili — though one did let it slip that, thanks to allergies, we now know there's no chocolate in the mix.

Their chili is controversial—and not universally liked

Skyline Chili inspires kids' costumes, road trips, and haikus, but their main attraction, Cincinnati chili, also inspires controversy. Some even wonder if the dish should be called chili at all, or if it should be considered a soup or meat stew instead. Admitting to not liking the dish, however, is the local equivalent of sacrilege.

Many chili traditionalists, especially lovers of chili con carne (or "Texas chili," as Cincinnatians call it), are put off by the mild taste and unique sweetness of Cincinnati chili. Others say their stomachs can't handle the chili's admittedly unsavory look: Its watery consistency makes it look more like a meat sauce than a hearty bowl of the good stuff.

But when one Deadspin reporter famously named Cincinnati Chili the worst regional food in the country, calling it "abominable garbage-gravy" and a "bad-tasting Z-grade atrocity," local residents weren't having it.

A rash of angry op-ed writers and local journalists immediately jumped to the defense of the regional dish. Cincinnati locals might argue about sports, traffic, and virtually everything else, but when it comes to Skyline Chili (and other places that serve the local favorite), they're loyal to a fault.

There's a certain way to eat it

Eating Skyline Chili is an experience. Put more frankly, it's a mess. A fantastic, cheesy, ooey-gooey mess, but a mess nonetheless.

And as a bonafide regional cuisine, Skyline Chili has rules of consumption. The locally-approved condiments and toppings for Skyline Chili include oyster crackers and, if you're feeling adventurous, a thick layer of Tabasco sauce. You might even pour hot sauce into the individual oyster crackers for a spicy surprise.

What's more, diners are expected to eat the chili with a fork only — that is, no hands and no knives. (A mess indeed!) Upon twirling his chili-topped noodles like a newbie, one unfortunate Washington Post reporter, Ben Chapman, was chastened by Skyline owner Tom Yunger: "You'll never see anyone eating it like that."

The concoction is meant to be eaten as-is, without any frills or flourishes. You can chop it with a fork and scoop it up like stew, but that's about it. Twirl your meaty noodles around your utensil, and you're likely to get a quizzical (or downright disapproving) look from a local or two.

You can get Skyline Chili many different ways

Skyline Chili is almost never served on its own. Instead, it's spooned up according to the "way" system.

Topped with a generous mound of shredded cheddar cheese, Skyline Chili can be served as a classic 3-Way (atop a pile of spaghetti, with cheese), 4-Way (adding onions or beans), or 5-Way (with all of the above). They are also commonly served on hot dogs as coneys, with cheese, mustard, and onions. Technically, you can also order a 2-Way: chili and spaghetti alone, sans cheese.

And, yes, Skyline does offer a plain bowl of chili. But local legend has it that nobody's ever done it. Or, if they have, they're very foolish, at least according to the Cincinnati Enquirer's food editor Polly Campbell. She scoffed to local podcast That's So Cincinnati, saying, "Ridiculous. Would you order a bowl of spaghetti sauce? Because that's what you're doing."

It's not the original Cincinnati chili

Skyline Chili was quite literally named by, and for, Cincinnati. The first Skyline location on Gateway Avenue overlooked the city's stunning riverfront views, and Lambrinides and his sons named their restaurant accordingly.

But although the brand name "Skyline Chili" is now virtually synonymous with Cincinnati chili itself—that sweet-and-savory blend of meat and spices that has become a local food icon—it's not the original version.

John and Tom Kiradjieff, Cincinnati-based Greek immigrants who opened a restaurant in 1922, tweaked a Greek recipe to make it more appealing to American tastes. The recipe became Cincinnati chili, the signature dish at the Empress Chili Parlor, where Nicholas Lambrinides worked before opening the first Skyline location.

Skyline Chili is the most famous hotspot for Cincinnati chili, but its competitors include Dixie Chili and Gold Star, among many other local restaurants. Locals argue passionately over which parlor serves the most authentic and best version of Cincinnati chili, but Skyline wins in terms of national popularity and reputation every time.

Skyline is part of the Cincinnati food trifecta

Any visitor to Cincinnati is virtually obligated to try a bowl of Skyline Chili. It's far and away the city's most famous regional dish, but it's not the only Cincinnati-grown brand to make a name for the city. (Cincinnati has a way of making homegrown customs turn famous.)

Along with Skyline, Cincinnatians also swear by two other, lesser-known local chains—Graeter's Ice Cream and LaRosa's Pizzeria.

Graeter's, founded by the son of German immigrants, serves up egg custard-based gourmet ice cream crafted using the French pot process, and is known for its extra-chunky chocolate chips. LaRosa's, with its secret-ingredient sweet sauce and melted provolone topping, is another local mainstay.

Neither Graeter's nor LaRosa's has reached Skyline's level of notoriety. If the three form a triangle, Skyline is the indisputable peak, heading up Cincinnati's regional food tradition. Still, locals rejoiced when the three iconic tastes of Cincinnati, all points of pride for locals, opened under one roof in 2014. What building is that? It's appropriately named Trifecta

Skyline Chili has inspired its very own whiskey cocktail

A celebrity isn't truly famous until they've been parodied on SNL, and no nostalgic sitcom can be deemed a classic without the requisite spinoff or reboot. Perhaps no food has truly made its mark until it's inspired spinoffs of its own, like a craft cocktail.

At Downtown Cincinnati's cocktail bar Metropole, nestled in the 21c Hotel (also a working art gallery), Skyline Chili was reimagined as an adult drink during 2018's Restaurant Week. Mixologist Travis Salee came up with the comfort food-inspired cocktail, telling the Cincinnati Enquirer, "It's just a comforting Cincinnati favorite."

Whiskey and sweet vermouth formed the drink's base, while house-made bitters, chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, cloves, and even dark chocolate rounded out the very Cincinnatian cocktail. Dubbed the Manhattan Skyline, the drink was an homage to the complex blend of seasonings in the Queen City's famous chili. As Cincinnati's local food scene expands, more Skyline-infused mashups are sure to hit the breweries and hotspots.

The chain has now expanded well beyond Ohio

Skyline Chili might be the unofficial cuisine of Cincinnati, but it's actually made headway in other areas, too. The chain has expanded to include over 135 restaurants in four states, with the majority of those being in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. Skyline's popularity in states close to Ohio make sense — Ohio expats to surrounding states have to get their Skyline fix, after all.

But Skyline's cultlike fandom, it appears, knows no bounds. New locations have been popping up to serve a growing group of Cincinnati chili lovers in an unexpected spot: Florida.

Skyline openings in Sunshine State cities like Fort Lauderdale, Naples, and Fort Myers have inspired lines around the block and explosive excitement on social media. Florida is an especially favorite vacation hotspot and for folks from Ohio (which stands to reason that it could also be a favorite retirement spot), meaning it's actually a pretty logical expansion location.

Many of Skyline's biggest fans might be growing older and moving south, but they can't give up their beloved childhood chili.