The Story Behind Cincinnati Chili

Cincinnati Chili (Skyline Chili)
Skyline Chili is a world-famous style of chili, also sometimes known as Cincinnati Chili or Cincinnati Style Chili.    (Photo Credit: leftatthefork.net)

It is named after the Skyline Restaurant in Cincinnati, Ohio where this rather unique chili recipe was introduced and grew to become famous. The recipe was invented by the restaurant’s founder Nicholas Lambrinides.

The original Skyline Restaurant was established in 1949. The short-order diner was located at the top of a steep hill which gave it a view of the Cincinnati Skyline, and that inspired Nicholas Lambrinides with the restaurant’s name. Lambrinides ran the restaurant as a family business, along with his sons.

Skyline Chili Restaraunt - Cincinatti Chili

Lambrinides had immigrated to Cincinnati from Greece in 1912, bringing with him his family’s recipes like many Greek immigrants did. As was also common among Greek immigrants at the time, he found work in the food services industry, first working as a cook for a railroad crew, then in a hotel kitchen and ultimately as a chef for Cincinnati’s original Empress Chili Restaurant as he struggled to save up enough money to bring his wife over from Greece. He was able to achieve that goal after nearly a decade, and they went on to raise 5 sons.

But it was during his years of working hard in the food industry, long before he opened his own restaurant, that Lambrinides had developed one particular recipe that he continued tweaking over the years, striving to perfect it. Little did he know that recipe would ultimately become famous the world over. And would still be sought after, talked about, and served 100 years later.

By 1953, Lambrinides opened his second Skyline Restaurant location. By this time his sons, now grown had active roles in the company business.

The success of two Skyline locations spawned an entire chain of Skyline Restaurants throughout the Cincinnati area during the 1960s. Lambrinides passed away in 1962 at the age of 82, but his sons continued to operate and expand the restaurant chain. Eventually there were 110 Skyline Restaurants, mostly in Ohio, but with additional locations in Kentucky, Indiana, and Florida.

Due to its overwhelming popularity and notoriety, through licensing arrangements, Skyline Chili became, and remains, the “official chili” of many Cincinnati sports teams and recreation venues, including the Cincinnati Reds, Columbus Blue Jackets and the Kings Island Theme Park. Of course, this made it even more famous than it already was.

The original Skyline Restaurant on the top of that hill no longer stands today. It was eventually demolished due to the age of the building. .

The actual Skyline Chili recipe as developed by Nicholas Lambrinides and served in his restaurants is, of course, top secret. It has always been a Lambrinides family secret, and remains so to this day among his surviving sons.

The recipe has remained unchanged since Lambrinides opened the original Skyline Restaurant. According to his sons, Lambrinides always insisted,  ‘Don’t change a thing with the recipe – don’t add anything, don’t take out anything, it’s perfect the way it is’.” And that’s exactly how it has stayed.

Lambrinides son’s sold the restaurant chain in 1998 to a New England investment firm, which continues to operate the restaurants to this day. As part of the negotiation and sale, the company had to agree not to change the recipe. The one and only paper copy of the original Skyline Chili recipe remains locked in a safe belonging to the company.

Skyline Chili is unlike any other chili recipe in that it doesn’t contain beans and isn’t typically served on its own, like a traditional Chili (con Carne), which, by the way, originated in the state of Texas. Rather, Skyline Chili is really more like a meat sauce which is typically served on hotdogs, burgers, or over spaghetti.

The other very distinctive characteristic of Skyline Chili is centered around one specific ingredient  that you would not expect to find in either a typical Chili or spaghetti sauce – chocolate (or cocoa powder – only the family and the company owners know for sure). It also includes cinnamon – a popular ingredient in Greek style cooking.

That combination, along with its distinct blend of other spices and seasonings, gives Skyline Chili a distinct flavor all of its very own.

With the world wide notoriety that came to be associated with Skyline Chili over time, a lot of other Cincinnati restaurant establishments began trying to create imitations of the dish, and it became a popular find on the menus of many diners and restaurants in Cincinnati.

This is how it also came to be known as Indicate Style Chili or Cincinnati Chili.

About 100 Skyline Restaurants remain in operation across several states. The chain describes itself as a cross between fast food and casual dining. Much link in the original Skyline Restaurant, which was diner-style, patrons can sit in a booth and be served, or can sit on stools at a counter near the kitchen. Take out is also available, and some of the more modern locations offer drive-thru windows.

Other signature dishes you’ll find on Skyline’s menu include:

The “cheese coney” – a hot dog topped with Skyline Chili, mustard, onions, and cheese

The “3-way” – spaghetti topped with Skyline Chili and cheese

The “4-way” – spaghetti topped with Skyline Chili and cheese with choice of beans or onions added

The “5-way”  – Spaghetti topped with Skyline Chili and cheese with both beans and onions added.

Burritos made with Skyline Chili

Baked potatoes topped with Skyline Chili.

Also offered are tossed salad, Greek salads, and french fries

This is what one of the more modern Skyline Chili locations looks like:

Skyline CHili

Over the years, many Skyline patrons have tried to identify the ingredients in Skyline Chili – especially the ones that give it its unique flavor. Many believe the unique taste comes from chocolate and cinnamon. Many people have tried to duplicate the secret recipe to Skyline Chili. And just like with any “Secret Recipe”, there are countless claims of victory.

This is one of the better ones:

Skyline Chili Recipe

RECIPE INGREDIENTS

* * 1 quart water

* * 2 medium onions, finely chopped

* * 2 (8 oz.) cans tomato sauce

* * 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

* * 1 1/2 teaspoon red pepper

* * 1 teaspoon ground cumin

* * 3 to 4 tablespoons chili powder

* * 1/2 oz. unsweetened chocolate

* * 2 pounds ground beef

* * 4 cloves garlic

* * 2 tablespoons vinegar

* * 1 whole bay leaf

* * 5 whole cloves

* * 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

* * 1 1/2 teaspoon salt

* * 1 teaspoon cinnamon

RECIPE DIRECTIONS

1. In a 4-quart pot, add the ground beef and bring to a slow boil over medium heat for 30 minutes. While cooking, stir beef occasionally and separate into a fine crumbled texture.

2. Stir in the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for three hours or so. You can cover the pot for the last hour of cooking if the chili has reached the desired consistency.

3. Serve over cooked spaghetti.

Enjoy the next best thing to authentic Skyline Chili!