What We Can Learn from the “Three-Way”: On Cincinnati Chili, Regional Foodways, and Airport Dining

A memorable layover meal prompts an investigation into the history of Cincy-style chili, and what the new wave of airport restaurants gets wrong.

Photos: First We Feast, KY Post via

Photos: First We Feast, KY Post via Kenton Library

In Cincinnati, “three-ways” are a birthright. Across the Queen City, hundreds of chili parlors service millions of visitors yearly. The regional specialty—a distinctly thin chili, served over pasta and showered with cheese—is so ingrained in local identity that, as chili historian Dann Woellert notes in his book The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili, it’s not uncommon for women to find engagement rings buried in a serving. Chili parlors are located at hospitals and sports arenas, malls and office blocks—anywhere that the citizens of Cincinnati need sustenance or solace. There’s even a chili parlor at the airport, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International, ensuring that the region’s great pleasure isn’t lost on travelers with a short layover.

Gold Star Chili occupies an enviable corner position in the Concourse B food court at CVG. With a giant, old-fashioned logo, the outlet stands apart from the other vendors—Great American Bagels, Chick-fil-A, Charley’s Grilled Subs, and McDonald’s—as a holdout against American fast-food homogeneity. The staff exudes local pride. “Have you been to Cincinnati before?” asks a cheerful older lady serving the counter. I answer yes. She seems pleased, and after taking my order (a three-way and a cup of coffee), offers a bonus: “There’s free refills, hun.” For in-transit dining, Cincinnati chili has no peer.

Chili is so ingrained in Cincinnati culture, it’s not uncommon for women to find engagement rings buried in a serving.

Chili inspires great regional fervor. Cook-offs dominate the food summer festival circuit, and families hold their respective recipes near and dear. Every state has its preferred style. Some varieties have chunks of beef. Some have beans. Some are green (shout out to New Mexico). But none, strangely enough, evoke the same strong regional rivalry as barbecue or pizza on a national scale. Instead, fierce proclamations of loyalty tend to occur at a more local level. Nowhere is that more true than in Cincinnati.

chili oldempress What We Can Learn from the Three Way: On Cincinnati Chili, Regional Foodways, and Airport Dining

Photo: Empress Chili

The Holy Trinity of chili, cheese, and spaghetti found footing in Cincinnati when brothers Tom and John Kiradjieff opened their Empress Chili Parlor on October 22, 1922. Immigrants from Macedonia, the Kiradjieff’s small store front in the larger Empress Burlesk Theater established the unique flavor and serving style that has become Cincy’s norm. The chili, flavored with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, drew from the Mediterranean meat stews of their youth—the profile is not dissimilar from Greek Pastichio, though the dish is not a direct ancestor to Cincinnati chili.

The Kiradjieff brothers didn’t just influence the city’s culinary scene; they also defined the look and feel of fast-casual dining in Cincinnati. To speed up service during the lunch-time rush, they established the city’s chili lingo: When waitstaff yelled “three-way,” cooks at the Empress knew to top chili-covered spaghetti with a mound of shredded cheddar. Soon, customers followed suit. And, just as quickly, imitators sprung up all around town.

Dixie Chili opened in 1929. Strand Chili Parlor, Oakley Chili, Park Chili, and Liberty Chili followed in the 1930s. By the end of ‘40s, Cincinnati had roughly a dozen distinct chili restaurants, including its most well known, Skyline Chili.

chili skyline What We Can Learn from the Three Way: On Cincinnati Chili, Regional Foodways, and Airport Dining

Photo: Skyline Chili

Founded in 1949 by Nick Lambrindes, who hailed from Kastoria, Macedonia, Skyline Chili solidified the Balkan heritage of the Southern Ohio’s most noted foodstuff. The Lambrindes’ also ingrained their business in Cincinnati’s culture, sponsoring orchestra hours on local radio and aggressively touting their catering services. Expansion began in the 1950s, and by 1965, Skyline had established a central commissary to supply the growing number of franchises with the family’s exacting recipe. The Lambrindes’ business sense gave way to their greatest competitor, Gold Star Chili—the final name to enter Cincinnati’s chili pantheon.

Unlike its predecessors, Gold Star does not have roots in the Balkans. The founders, the Daouds, hail from Jordan, and they planted an initial stake in Cincinnati’s restaurant scene by purchasing Hamburger Heaven from Joseph Marsh in 1963. With the acquisition, the Dauds inherited a four-generation-old chili recipe from original owner, Thomas Manoff. The Manoff name, as Woellert writes, “is one of the most important in the proliferation of our chili.”

While the Daouds were new to chili, they entered with strong ties (through the Manoffs) to all the great chili parlors. The brothers modified the Manoff recipe slightly, and in 1965 renamed Hamburger Heaven with the laudatory title Gold Star Chili (the name was inspired by the Jordanian cigarette brand Gold Star, to which the Daoud family had supplied tobacco for generations). Gold Star took on fresh Cincinnati territory, the previously overlooked Eastside, and effectively united the city in a singular, universal love of the three-way.

History isn’t lost on the staff at CVG’s Gold Star Chili location. As I wait for my three-way, lessons are dispensed to all fellow travelers. While this type of storytelling would reek of heavy-handed corporate training at neighboring concessions, there’s a refreshing genuineness about its handling at Gold Star—these women are ambassadors of tradition, and champions of local lore.

goldstar archival What We Can Learn from the Three Way: On Cincinnati Chili, Regional Foodways, and Airport Dining

Photo: KY Post via Kenton Library

For the uninitiated, the subtle differentiation of flavor for one Cincinnati chili parlor to the next rarely surfaces. What’s apparent is the sweetness underlying the heat—the Macedonian influence of those cloves and that cinnamon—that gives Cincinnati-style chili its character. Texture is also important. The chili is smooth—no beans here—and the spaghetti itself is several minutes past al dente. Once the cheese melts in, the stew takes on a burgundy hue and the constituent parts merge into one harmonious texture; oyster crackers are provided to soak up the residue. Even in an anonymous airport food court, the experience is unmistakably Cincinnati.

There is great satisfaction in celebrating local foodways in airport terminals.

Other regional foods are certainly available at airports. James Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Que pulls pork at Memphis International, and the Saltlick slices brisket at Austin-Bergstrom. Neither outpost channels the soul of the true brick-and-mortar location. Chili, however, sings through commissary production. In Cincinnati, centralized cooking is standard; in fact, it’s understood as a method of retaining the authenticity of the recipes. Real barbecue, in comparison, requires full immersion—it’s an olfactory experience, the smells of the smokers essential to building anticipation. Without the smoke, the meal’s worth is severely diminished.

Yet, there is glory (and great satisfaction) in celebrating local foodways in airport terminals. New-school, chef-driven concessions currently challenge that notion. Cat Cora at SFO? Marcus Sameulson at JFK? Sounds great, but what does it achieve? In Cincinnati, the humble Gold Star does what few other airport restaurants manage, giving voice to blue collar, vernacular institutions rooted deeply in the fabric of the local area. The friendly counter ladies know, and as ambassadors of tradition produce the impossible: meals with enough soul to cut through the anonymity of a layover.

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