Orange You Glad I Ate Out in Cincinnati?

A quintessential plate of 4-way chili at Skyline Chili: that’s cheese on top of chili on top of spaghetti. Yes, spaghetti.

I was pretty sure that Ohio wasn’t the cheese state. But what did I know? It was my first trip to anywhere in the midwest, not including airport layovers. I found myself there last weekend because my college buddy Aaron had gotten married to a Japanese girl while teaching English in Japan, and had brought her back to his home base in Cincinnati. Instead of having a formal wedding, they threw a weekend-long celebration with friends from across the country, and me and fellow Brooklynite Jordan booked flights for Saturday and Sunday, packed a light bag, and went. And so I learned that Cincinnati is very fond of bad, processed cheese in great quantities.

Cutting to case in point: Cincinnati’s famed Skyline Chili. The venerable establishment caught my eye as we were driving back from bar-hopping on Saturday night at 3:30 a.m. On a dark street, the fully-lit restaurant was teeming with customers inside. So we had to check it out the next day for lunch since it was, according to Aaron, “the most Cincinnati thing.”

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The restaurant was brightly lit and had a central bar around a place where we could see staff plating dishes with armloads of shredded cheese from a vat. When the waitress first brought our dishes to our table (2 minutes after taking our orders), we couldn’t tell whose was whose; they were all covered with a mountainous pile of stringy, shredded, unmelted “cheese” (which seems to require no prename; even “yellow” wouldn’t suffice here as it was most certainly orange). Then we saw the bits of stuff poking underneath–Jane’s baked potato beneath a pile of “5-way” chili, my spaghetti (looking a little more like thin spaghetti) oozing out from a pile of “4-way” chili (I think this means that Jane’s had everything, and mine was minus one ingredient), Cory’s dollop of sour cream, tomatoes and shredded lettuce on top of a supposed black bean enchiladas which we never could fully see, and Jordan’s something or other.


The mound of cheese, in all its majesty, was ultimately tasteless. We removed about half of it in order to see what would end up on our forks. Just underneath the cheese on my plate was a regretful spoonful of diced onion, which tasted frozen and thawed. The chili itself was better than expected–it wasn’t thick or too greasy, and it wasn’t soupy, either. It was more like a meat sauce without the tomatoes, and a faint hint of cinnamon and nutmeg could be detected. Each table inside Skyline was set with four small dishes of oyster crackers before anyone occupied it, and our assumption was to crumble the crackers on top of our dishes for an added texture. So there it was: spaghetti and meat chili with onions, oyster crackers, and a swamp of cheese: Cincinnati’s finest. If you think I’m being facetious, the amount of plaques for various accolades the chain had won such as “Best in Cincinnati” covered the interior of the diner. Aaron tells me that Skyline has attempted to branch outside of Cincinnati, however, it hasn’t really taken off anywhere else.

We got to see many more bars than eating establishments in the city, and enjoyed spending at most $4 for a glass of beer. The pitchers at a bar in downtown Cincinnati called Arlin’s were even $5.50. Some of Aaron’s friends from the area were downing these cheese fries dipped in ranch dressing when we arrived. I don’t do this.

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Left: cheese fries with ranch dressing (not mine); Right: beer, beer, and smoking inside

The rest of the weekend was spent with decidedly more international food excursions. My only protest was that each of them–Indian buffet lunch, and a Korean barbecue dinner–were all-you-can-eat situations. As if it weren’t enough of a hook to be served exotic food, perhaps. Or I could just be complaining since I ate way too much this weekend because of this.

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While the Indian buffet (left) was expectedly cheap at $10 a person, the Korean barbecue was shockingly not–$34 a person. I could swear that most of the Indian dishes were of the creamier variety and tasted as if slightly spiked with cheese.

As a final stop before taking a flight back to New York on Sunday, we all went to get ice cream at Graeter’s. According to some locals, ice cream is really what Cincinnati does best. And I believed it after tasting a plain scoop of vanilla bean ice cream from Graeter’s. Rich and thick, it was simply better than most. I’m told that the store’s signature flavor is their dark heliotrope-colored black raspberry chip. But the “chips”–which were about half an inch thick and anywhere from a fraction to 3 inches across, offended my need for cream, icy delicious cream. Only $2.25 a cup, too.


By the time I was on my way back to New York and had a short layover in Detroit, I was eager to detox from the gluttonous weekend, and ordered a take-out salad from a restaurant in the airport (interestly called “Coney Island Grill,” I think). But once I moved the grilled chicken that lay on top of the salad, I was faced with an all-too familiar sight: a thick layer of the popular shredded processed cheese food.


Now, I know that New York is quite fond of cheese in all its American varieties, and that certain places such as Coney Island are particularly loose with a liquid cheese sauce, but what gives? Am I missing out on a huge part of our culture by removing most of the cheese that’s expected for one single meal but appears to me like it took a cow’s life span to produce? Am I not getting something here?

34 Responses

  1. sixtyfive

    Hilarious post. Well done.

  2. Meredith

    Being from Cleveland, I’ve had Skyline chili several times, as they branched out up north for a while. I always thought it was pretty darn good (if quite different from the “usual” chili), but the last time I had it was probably 7 or 8 years ago.

  3. Yvo

    Hahahaha can I just say that when I saw the title of your post and the first picture, I thought “Is that orange zest? Um…. that’s a bit much… but interesting…” (If you could see the face I’m making…) But ah… now I actually happen to like cheese, but … not like that. *shaking head* It’s almost funny though because you seriously cannot see anything besides the “cheese” and spaghetti. Fries, cheese + ranch is too disgusting for you? *shrug* Sometimes it could be good…. but I just like saucy things. The $34/Korean BBQ…. that is pretty pricy. The one Korean BBQ place I’ll go to in NYC isn’t in the city, it’s on the offskirts of Flushing but it’s all you can eat and incredibly cheap, like $20~ a person, but $34 for seafood AYCE KBBQ isn’t that bad, is it? (I see shrimp on the plate). I find it to be expensive when you eat a la carte…

    And I feel very sad about the last picture. I hope you have some very good at-home meals coming to you soon. 🙂

  4. cathy

    Yeah, $34 is about what I might expect for that KBBQ, but I was in midwest-equals-cheaper-prices mode…ah well. The chili was unique, Meredith–I’m perplexed by the great range of consistencies and ingredients that can be called chili. I guess you learn something new every day.

  5. Yvo

    Oh, right. I forgot about that. Sad that we can get so immune to outrageous prices.

  6. Kristen

    Wow – that’s a lot of cheese. I’m of the motto the more cheese the better, but this may be a bit much.

    I agree about Grater’s. It’s delicious!

  7. Aaron

    Wow I am honored that you spent so much time detailing the weekend, albeit from the perspective of food, glorious food. In retrospect I suppose Cincinnati culinary tradition generally offers a great quantity of mediocre goodness over small amounts of truly delectable dishes (perhaps this explains the size of Graeter’s ‘chips?’). Too bad you missed the Japanese lunch on Friday…
    Anyways the Borges is a great resource, I’ve been picking through it the last few days. Perhaps it would benifit with the inclusions of a Skyline Chili Cheese Monster.

  8. Nessi

    I know this comment comes way too late, but as I was randomly searching for a good picture of Cincinnati Chili, I discovered your commentary and felt compelled to defendmy beloved food.

    First off, Cincinnati Chili is one-of-a-kind. You will never enjoy it the first time around, but if you try just one more time, chances are you’ve changed your mind. Ha, but ultimately, you either hate it or love it. Every single German friend of mine and all of my brothers LOVE this chili, and always ask me to send them cans of chili to them overseas. One great complaint I hear from them though, is that you will not be able to find authentic Cheddar cheese in Germany, which shows that this huge pile of cheese is essential in the experience, ha!

    Anyways, if you ever decide to come to Cincinnati again, i wanted to make some restaurant suggestions. Teke Thai for one. The best Asian food anywhere in town with a wonderful atmosphere and modest price. Flawless. Then another unque Cincinnati chain is First Watch, a breakfast/brunch/lunch place using only fresh ingredients and healthy recipes. Anything ranging from pancakes, eggs benedict to my favorite, the Beefeater. Amazingly delicious. My mother is a New Yorker, I am German, so these two places live up to our standards.

    I hope you will give Cincinnati another chance. It’s not half as bad as you think. You just have to know where to go. 🙂

    Best wishes, Cheers.

  9. Lisa Smith

    Hey, I live in Ohio but not near Cincinnati.
    I absolutely crave Skyline Chili. We now have one in Ashland Kentucky and it is doing great. Sorry that you didn’t like it. I think the cheese makes it wonderful

  10. Michelle

    I know a few Cincinnati transplants living in NYC who adore and miss Skyline chili. One of them brought me to Edward’s in Tribeca (, where you can enjoy Skyline chili, Graeter’s, and other Cincy specialties once a month if you ever have the urge (haha, or lose a bet). Like you, I’ve never understood the appeal.

  11. elizabeth

    I found myself perusing your blog today (linked from somewhere else I’ve forgotten) and really enjoying it, despite the fact that I am far from New York and do eat out from time to time.So I’m just plodding along, bookmarking some recipes, when all of a sudden there’s a photo taken around the corner from my apartment (the outside of the Skyline above). Whoa!!

    I personally love me some Skyline, though I haven’t had the real thing in years since I’ve gone vegetarian. But many don’t like it, and that’s cool. I appreciate that you didn’t use your dislike of the food to put down my whole city. People (especially East Coasters) do that pretty frequently and it grates.

    Graeter’s is hands-down the best ice cream I’ve had anywhere. The thing about the large chips: they’re not actually chips, but liquid chocolate poured in while the ice cream’s being hand-stirred. It solidifies however it wants, often in the famous large chunks. I guess you just have to love chocolate, which I certainly do! The black raspberry chip is the best.

    If you’re ever back in town, try some of the smaller places. Dewey’s Pizza is right next to that Skyline and is AMAZING. Melt, Myra’s Dionysus, and Ambar India (NOT a buffet) are all nearby, too, and get my stamp of approval. And you should check out Findlay Market–maybe not as exciting for a New Yorker, but it’s a beautiful and wonderful outdoor market and a great display of the best of Cincinnati.

    Okay, sorry for the ramble. Thanks for the enjoyable reads today!!

  12. 2nd Wind Inc.


    I currently live in the Northern Virginia and have lived here for the past two years. I moved from Cincinnati and must say I have yet to experience chili that even comes close to Skyline. The special recipe of mixing chocolate with chili covered with mounds of that special cheese makes me smile every time!! I have many friends and family members that could not stand Skyline the first time they tried it, but after a second try they fell in love with it, its now the first stop on the drive home from the airport!

    I never could appreciate the quality of ice cream which I had taken for granted for so many years until I moved. Not only can you find great ice cream at Graters, but at nearly every corner inside UDF (United Dairy Farmers). I do an enormous amount of traveling for my job and I still can’t believe that corner gas stations carry better ice cream and cheaper than most Ice cream shops across our great nation!! I hope you will give Skyline another chance, try eating it with the cheese (it makes a substantial difference)!!

  13. kingoftheheavies

    I see you tried to twirl your Skyline with your fork. Shameful. It must be cut, and held on the fork with garlic toast. If you swirl, all you get is mouthful of chili-flavored pasta. Try it again, eating it properly, and you will have nothing left on the plate.

  14. elaine

    Just came across your blog for the first time – it’s great! Have to put in my two cents on this one. . .I’m from Cincy and headed back this weekend for a wedding. All of my friends that have come to visit me have the same experience: Skyline disgusts them the first time and then it’s the first thing they ask for on their next visit. I don’t know why it works that way but it does. My husband and I have already planned our Skyline sidetrip while we’re there this weekend. One more thing you should try – Skyline dip. Same ingredients but sub cream cheese for the spaghetti. Have your buddy mail you a couple cans of the chili. It is gross/awesome and perfect for potlucks and football games. Does football exist in NYC? Recipe below:

    One 12 oz. package softened cream cheese
    One 13 oz. frozen Skyline Chili thawed OR one 15 oz. can of Skyline Chili
    ¼ cup diced onions (optional)
    12 oz. Skyline shredded mild cheddar cheese

    Spread softened cream cheese evenly on bottom of 9 x 13 microwaveable casserole dish. Heat chili according to package directions. Pour heated Skyline Chili over cream cheese. Sprinkle diced onions (optional) on top of chili. Cover with Skyline shredded mild cheddar cheese.

    Conventional oven: heat at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes or until cheese is completely melted.

    Microwave oven: heat on high for 2 minutes or until cheese is completely melted.

    Let stand 5-10 minutes before serving. Serve with nacho or corn chips.

  15. jessica

    Hi! My name is Jessica and we are working on a site dedicated to Cincinnati Chili. I was hoping to link to your post, Orange You Glad I Ate Out In Cincinnati? from December 2006. The site is not quite ready yet but I will send you an invitation when it is. Thank you for your time. Jessica

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  24. […] anywhere in the Midwest, either (except for a wee little wedding excursion way back, in Cincinnati. Remember that?). Apparently, in Wisconsin more eggs is more when it comes to making ice cream — I mean, […]

  25. Marie

    Having lived in NYC for many years, I can say that many people who live in this area get a disease in which they think residents of “flyover states” are beneath them.

    Oh my god, they eat Velveeta!

  26. Jessica

    As a Cincinnatian myself it is extremely painful to watch someone rip apart a 3way (or 4way, or 5way) And especially twirl it on your fork…AHHHH!!
    A 3way is made in layers. If you eat it correctly, starting at one end (pointing it longways away from you) & cut into it downwards, eating sections of it at a time, that’s the best way to insure you get nice even flavor in your mouth..YUMMMM–hand shredded cheddar cheeeese!!!!. I realize it’s a strange dish for outsiders, lol. But I could eat it EVERY SINGLE DAY!!

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  30. arm53

    CHILI….well Dixon’s in Kansas City never fails. Harry Truman ate there.

  31. Kay Shepherd

    I have lived in California for most of my life and only in the last couple of years even heard of Cincinnati Chili on a food tv show. It sounded odd to me and I put it out of my mind. But then a few months later I really got to thinking about it and really wanted to try it. I found a recipe on Cook’s Illustrated. I don’t know how ‘authentic’ it is, but I LOVED it! I encourage you to try it again at home with your own choices of ingredients.

  32. Jack

    While this post is obviously over 5 years old, I thought you might like to know that Skyline and Arlin’s bar are not in downtown ‘nnati; they’re in the outskirts, in a neighborhood called Clifton.

    Cincinnati Chili is certainly an acquired taste. I lived in Clifton for three years, around the corner from the Skyline you went to, and had it thrust upon me by a friend of mine. I have since moved back to NYC, and I find myself craving it regularly.

  33. Stevo

    I know this is old but others can find this high in google listings just like I did, for same reason that I did.

    I was and have been curious whether skyline uses processed cheese or real. I’m hesitant from assigning any weight to your ‘processed’ comment regarding their cheese. I’ve always assumed it is real though i’ve never bothered to find out. I do have a medical issue that makes it necessary for me to eat non processed cheese though so I guess it’d be smart for me to ask them :). I’m lazy which is why I just googled random comments regarding it. Would be nice if more restaurants used full ingredients listings on their websites. Still just wanted to comment that your perception of taste or color isn’t going to make a difference on whether its real cheese or not. Also you cannot take various companies acknowledgements either without seeing written ingredients listings. I know this from examples including many common pizza places. Would have preferred you just stuck to commenting on the cheese’s taste texture color; and not made a comment regarding whether it was real or processed without actually mentioning what you are basing it on besides guesswork. Did you ask or check the bag/box that it came in or done some other further background?

  34. Joan

    Love skyline chili!!!!!
    I lived in ky we had skyline chili, gold star chili and Dixie chili which were all good but my favorite was skyline.
    Moved away to NC in 86, no chili places then to Mo in 09, none here either…so every time I go visit my family we visit skyline chili along with white castles. Some people love or hate it….I wished they had it here in the mid west!

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