Skyline Chili Review: Good Enough for Bourdain, Good Enough for Me
Regional American cuisine doesn’t get enough credit. Sure, we all know (and love) Southern food, but there are lots of regional dishes across the rest of the country that are not known or – more commonly – derided by those who aren’t from the region.
For those who are from the area, those foods are usually beloved in equal opposition to those who hate on them. Such is the case for Skyline Chili, an Ohio-based restaurant that specializes in Cincinnati-style chili… and this isn’t the chili you’re expecting, I assure you.
Anthony Bourdain didn’t visit Ohio much, but he did spend time in Colombus and Cleveland – which happens to be where I now call home. When I realized there is literally only one Skyline Chili in Cleveland, I knew I had to go: it’s not just any old Skyline Chili – it’s the Skyline Chili where Tony had to have eaten!
Similar to my review of Slattery’s Bar in Dublin, Ireland, I decided to put together a review of my experience at Skyline Chili here in Cleveland. I visited and am writing this review before watching the Cleveland episode of No Reservations, so that Tony’s opinions wouldn’t cloud my experience.
While this is a particularly Tony-centric approach to Skyline Chili, I’ll also cover the basics – what it’s like to visit and how the food is. Grab your napkin-wrapped fork and let’s dive in!
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Erie, Kaskaskia, and Mississauga peoples, among others. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Bourdain at Skyline Chili
During his Cleveland visit, it’s actually Anthony Bourdain who comes up with the idea to eat at Skyline Chili; he drags his friend and multi-time travel companion Michael Ruhlman (best known for the Las Vegas episodes) thinking Ruhlman will turn his nose up to it.
“He knew I wouldn’t like it and chose it for comic effect,” Ruhlman says. “He tries to make me out as a snob. But I don’t dismiss the place just because it’s a chain serving mass-produced food. I dismiss it because I ate the chili.”
This is perhaps an unfair assessment of Skyline Chili – sure it’s not a one-stop mom-and-pop shop (anymore), but it’s also not a mass-produced chain in the way that Applebee’s might be classified… Oh, and if you’re craving Applebee’s after your meal at Skyline Chili, there’s one across the parking lot.
In any case, Tony actually likes the “traditional three-way” chili, served on spaghetti. “Don’t ask what’s in it or how it’s made, just enjoy it.”
Visiting Skyline Chili in Cleveland
Skyline Chili – at least the location in Cleveland – feels like a restaurant quite well past its prime, but beloved enough to hold out through the last few years when so many restaurants have struggled.
Stepping into the strip mall restaurant, I was greeted by fluorescent lighting, laminate tables, and brown booths whose original color was well-chosen to ensure that no splashes, stains, or sordid experiences would ever be visible. Honestly, it’s not much to look at.
The menu at Skyline Chili has undoubtedly grown since its earlier days, but the classics are front and center: the 3-Way (chili on spaghetti with a cardiac arrest-inducing pile of cheddar), 4-Way (with beans or onions), or 5-Way (with beans and onions) are essential. A little bit of research shows that this chili is Greek style – hence the strange presentation and even more unusual flavor (more on that below). It therefore felt fitting to order a Greek salad to go with my chili-slash-pasta.
The Only Time I’ve Asked for a 3-Way
Despite the lackluster first impression and unusual combination of ingredients and flavors, I actually enjoyed Skyline Chili a lot. The chili itself is, well, different: gone are the common flavors of chili powder and cumin. Instead, you’ll find cinnamon, Worcestershire sauce, paprika, vinegar, cloves, and other flavors that are harder to parse. The pasta, while originally off-putting, is actually quite fun to eat with chili – though it definitely makes a mess and I should not have chosen a white sweater.
(You can actually see I’m spilling the sauce everywhere in the photo at the top of this post!)
Would I go back? Definitely. Would I bring out-of-town guests? For sure. Skyline Chili may be a Cincinnati thing, but it feels like something all of Ohio can be proud to love – even if the rest of the country turns its nose up to it. More weirdly sweet and delicious chili for us anyway.
Have any questions about my Skyline Chili review or planning your own visit? Let me know in the comments below!