Skyline Chili (https://www.skylinechili.com/) is a chain restaurant started by Greek immigrant Nicholas Lambrinides in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1949. Cincinnati chili is very different from any other kind of chili you’ve tried before. There are no beans in it, it’s not spicy, and it’s a relatively thin meat sauce with finely ground beef — not thick or chunky. In addition to ground beef, it contains tomato paste, tomato sauce, onions, garlic, cider vinegar, and cumin, which sounds normal enough so far. But HOLD ONTO YOUR HATS, because Cincinnati chili ain’t Cincinnati chili without cinnamon, cloves, allspice, Worcestershire sauce, and maybe a bit of unsweetened baker’s chocolate, if you wanna get nuts. YOU WANNA GET NUTS? COME ON! LET’S GET NUTS!
At Skyline and its Midwestern rivals like Gold Star Chili, you can order chili by the bowl, topping a hot dog (Skyline calls them Coneys), or served in a “3-Way” (spaghetti, chili, and bright orange, finely shredded cheddar cheese), a “4-Way” (a 3-Way topped with onions or beans), or a “5-Way” (a 3-Way topped with onions and beans). I find the names hilariously ironic, because most people wouldn’t fare very well in a 3-way after eating a 3-Way, at least not for long. And don’t even bother trying any kind of way after a 5-Way!
Good thing I never bothered to monetize this blog, because I’ll probably lose multiple subscribers after this review, and we all know I don’t have that many to begin with.
Anyway, there are a few Skyline locations in Florida, but none here in Orlando. I’ve eaten at the one in Naples and two in South Florida (Sunrise and the one I’m reviewing here, in Fort Lauderdale), and there are others in Clearwater, Bradenton, and Fort Myers. All the others are in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. Come on, Skyline! Orlando gets tourists from all around the world, including the Midwest. Send your 3-Ways our way!
I drove down to South Florida at the beginning of March, shortly before COVID-19 became a serious concern, to visit my family and best friend in Miami for the first time in far too long. I also had the sad experience of attending a friend’s funeral in Fort Lauderdale on my way down. By the time it ended, I needed to center myself before driving the last hour down to my parents’ house in Kendall, a Miami suburb. I was running on empty — emotionally drained, hungry, and craving comfort food. And what did I discover mere minutes from the service? A rare Skyline Chili sighting. Of course I had to stop, since I haven’t been to one in many years.
You know what’s interesting? Cincinnati’s chili restaurants like Skyline and Gold Star are usually referred to as “chili parlors” up there. These days, not a lot happens in parlors. You hear about parlor games and parlor tricks, but there’s an old-timey connotation to those. Of course there are ice cream parlors, but that’s pretty much it for food. And then there are funeral parlors, so don’t think I missed the significance of going from a funeral straight to a chili parlor.
This location (the Skyline Chili parlor, I should clarify) was set up like a diner, with regular tables, but also a counter with a row of stools facing the open kitchen. I always like to sit at the counter when it’s an option and I’m alone, so I parked on a stool and ordered a cheese Coney (Skyline’s small, chili and cheese-covered hot dogs) as an appetizer. It took less than a minute for the Coney to be served in front of me — a tiny hot dog on a soft, steamed bun with a squirt of yellow mustard, topped with the hearty chili, diced raw onions, and a mountain of almost neon orange shredded cheddar.
My kind and thoughtful waitress was thoughtful enough to offer me a disposable plastic bib. This was a godsend, considering I was still wearing my good black suit, white dress shirt, and skinny black tie from the funeral I had just come from. I was really worried about how I was going to get out of this restaurant without dripping, splashing, or splattering myself, and the bib greatly improved my chances of avoiding besmirchment.
Anyway, the cheese Coney was glorious. Everything my mind and mouth needed, even if my body might possibly regret it later. I could have put away a half-dozen of those, but I had another hour to drive before making it to my parents’ house. Don’t worry, though — I wasn’t done yet.
Yes, there was a hot dog under all that:
I couldn’t leave Fort Lauderdale without enjoying a nice 3-Way, and that was when I saw a sign advertising an “extreme” habanero and cheddar cheese blend as an alternative to the classic cheddar, advising curious diners to “turn up the heat.” So I got that, because if you’re going to have a 3-Way, you might as well make it as hot and extreme as possible. Again, moments later, it was in front of me, steaming, melting, fragrant spicy messy tempting.
This makes quite a mess, as you might expect from a 3-Way, but there were so many flavors and textures to enjoy, and the slower you go, the more sticky and melty everything gets. Thank goodness for that bib! But it totally hit the spot — my first Skyline fix in almost a decade, and on an afternoon where I really needed some uplift.
I should note that my entire bill for the cheese Coney, the 3-Way, and a fountain soda was only $12.70, which seems like a bargain at twice the price.
I should note that the Internet abounds with Cincinnati chili recipes. I’ve even tried some of them, and they’re all decent, if not identical to Skyline’s secret recipe. You can’t go wrong with those basic ingredients. Even if the idea of putting a little cinnamon and unsweetened chocolate in your chili sounds weird and wrong, step out of your culinary comfort zone, because you might discover you like it weird and wrong, and that weird and wrong is really so, so right.
You can also find Skyline Chili at some Publix supermarkets in the frozen food case, and I’ve even seen it in cans at Walmart, near the other canned chili like Hormel and Wolf Brand. It’s an acquired taste, and one I’m sure not all my readers will love, but I believe in trying everything once, and often twice… just to be sure. If you find the frozen or canned Skyline, you can even assemble a 3-Way in the comfort and safety of your own home and try it once for yourselves. Just keep The Saboscrivner in your thoughts while you experiment!
In fact, I’ve been cooking at home so much during this quarantine, writing this review inspired me to make my own Cincinnati-style chili with one of the many Skyline “copycat” recipes that are out there. I used a pound of ground chuck AND a pound of ground turkey, canned tomato sauce but no paste, added cinnamon and unsweetened chocolate I ground with my box grater, and even ground my own cloves and allspice berries in a small coffee grinder I use exclusively for spices. I let the chili sit in the fridge for almost two days before trying it, and that allowed me to skim a lot of the orange congealed fat off the top. Then I served it over good quality Flora brand spaghetti with a blend of extra-sharp cheddar and habanero cheddar that I shredded myself, and it was fantastic. It was thicker than Skyline’s, which I appreciated, and also spicier due to adding a little more cayenne pepper than the recipe I found called for, plus the habanero cheddar to turn up the heat and make it extreme. My cheese (Cabot brand) didn’t melt as quickly or as well as Skyline’s cheese, but my spaghetti was more al dente, and the whole concoction tasted great. Since I used two pounds of meat, I’ll be enjoying 3-Ways at home for the next several days.