Cincinnati, a proud, hard-working city on the banks of the Ohio River, commands the attention of business travelers and tourists, who arrive to discover a distinctive food scene.
A visit to Cincinnati isn't complete without sampling some local food favorites. The good news is that most do not involve a large expenditure or a fancy restaurant. In this down-to-earth, blue-collar town, you can eat like a local and enjoy a modest bill at the end of the meal.
Lunchtime at a downtown Cincinnati chili parlor is when you'll see men in business attire wearing big plastic bibs as they enjoy one of the city's trademark food items. To outsiders, the bibs are an amusing sight, and the chili is an acquired taste.
Chili in Cincinnati is unlike what you'll eat in other parts of the country. Interestingly, Greek immigrants who opened restaurants here introduced this style of chili. In fact, it might be the most admired of their menu contributions in this region. How many people think of chili when considering Greek cuisine?
The ground beef is chopped to an extremely fine consistency, and unless you order beans or onions they won't be included.
Another distinction: mounds of shredded cheddar cheese heaped above the chili, which is usually served either on a coney (small hot dog) or spaghetti.
Ordering instructions: a plate with spaghetti, chili, and cheese is known here as a three-way. Add either onions or beans for a four-way. Add both and you'll want to call for a five-way.
A cheese coney is the hot dog with a dash of mustard, ladled with chili, and topped with shredded cheese. Since these are small, many people order two or three at lunchtime.
Cincinnati has carried on a unique love affair with chili for generations. There are about 200 chili parlors in the city. Some are family owned, while others are part of two large chili franchises: Skyline and Gold Star.
Among the big two, each has devoted fans who claim their favorite is clearly superior. But another large group of chili diners simply pulls into whichever chain happens to appear along the route they're traveling on a given day.
Skyline has expanded its franchise into neighboring states, and also offers its product in Midwestern supermarkets.
Where to eat Cincinnati chili: This might be among the most controversial recommendations one can make in the Queen City as loyalties run deep. Skyline is the most popular choice, and the chain offers about 80 restaurants in the greater Cincinnati area.
Cincinnati chili has Greek origins, one of the area's unique breakfast staples has German roots. This was a dish that developed in impoverished households as a way to stretch a small supply of sausage.
Goetta (pronounced GET-uh) is a sometimes described as fried mush. That might not sound appetizing, but this breakfast item has a devoted fan base in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. It rarely appears on a menu elsewhere.
Pork sausage is combined with oats, and then fried on a griddle. It's frequently served with eggs. If sliced too thick and insufficiently fried, it tends to be gooey on the inside and nearly inedible. Supermarkets here serve it for home consumption, but experience is required to cook it properly.
Goetta has a distinct flavor that's difficult to describe, but many a Cincinnati transplant has become addicted after initially vowing never to eat the stuff. It bears some resemblance to scrapple, which is popular in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Scrapple is made with corn flour and spices rather than oats.
Where to eat goetta: The Colonial Cottage Inn, 3140 Dixie Hwy., Erlanger, Kentucky., offers among the biggest varieties in greater Cincinnati. Here, you can sample a goetta reuben sandwich, a goetta wrap, goetta-egg-and-cheese biscuits, and several others. Open 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, except Sunday when the doors open at 7 a.m.
Graeter's Ice Cream
Graeter's ice cream traces its roots to the year 1870. This ice cream is so thick that it has to be hand-scooped into every package. Hand packers work around the clock to meet demand.
The secret to this product's success is in the unique process by which it is produced. Graeter's uses a French Pot Process that begins with egg custard. Once pasteurized, it goes into a two-gallon pot and is spun in frozen saltwater. A blade scrapes cream from the side of the pot as the spinning continues.
The result is a distinctive ice cream named "best sweet" at a recent Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
Where to eat Graeter's ice cream: The chain offers about 50 locations, nearly half of which are spread out among other cities in the region. If you visit Fountain Square, in the heart of Cincinnati, there is a parlor at 511 Walnut St. It's open daily, but hours vary according to season.
Montgomery Inn BBQ sauce
Montgomery Inn is among the Cincinnati area's best-known restaurants. The original location is in suburban Montgomery. Two additional inns thrive along the Ohio River near downtown (Montgomery Inn Boathouse) and just across the river in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.
Montgomery Inn Boathouse appears to be a must-do for visiting dignitaries. Pictures of the rich and famous adorn the walls of the eatery. The claim is that every U.S. president since Gerald Ford has enjoyed Montgomery Inn ribs, the star menu attraction here.
Almost as popular is the sauce that accompanies those ribs. It is in such high demand that many supermarkets offer it by the bottle, and mail orders for it come in from homesick Cincinnati transplants across the country.
The recipe, as you might imagine, is a closely-guarded secret of the Gregory family, which owns the place. But it is a precise combination of tomatoes, garlic, onions, molasses and special spices. On many a Cincinnati-area table, it replaces ketchup as a primary condiment.
Where to get Montgomery Inn BBQ sauce: The Montgomery Inn Boathouse is located at 925 Riverside Drive in Cincinnati. If you simply want to enjoy the sauce, it's available at local supermarkets.
Another Cincinnati food favorite with Greek origins is the gyro (pronounced YEAR-oh). The spit-roasted beef and lamb is sliced into strips and served on flat pita bread. Most people add a generous application of sadziki white sauce. Tomatoes and onions are standard additions.
Unlike Cincinnati chili and goetta, gyros are readily available throughout the country. But the Greek influence on Cincinnati's restaurant industry makes gyros a common lunchtime treat throughout the city.
Where to eat gyros: Sebastian's Gyros, at 5309 Glenway Ave. in the Price Hill section on Cincinnati's west side, attracts loyal customers from throughout the Tri-State area. Alex Vasiliou is the friendly owner. He and his wife Sue have been serving authentic Greek dishes for more than 40 years. Open daily except Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Milk Shakes at United Dairy Farmers
This milkshake from United Dairy Farmers gets a lot of attention.
The strawberry version was named Ohio's best milkshake in a recent poll. The criteria for judging this particular contest: social media posts, polls of college students, and other data.
These shakes start with a unique malt base, to which milk, ice cream, and scoop of malt powder is added. They are hand-dipped and made to order, which is a departure from what is commonly available in a convenience store.
Where to get a UDF milkshake: There are more than 100 UDF locations in greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
You might know that Ohio State University's mascot is the Buckeye. Perhaps more obscure is the fact that Ohio's state tree is the Buckeye. The nuts it produces have a dark outer shell surrounding a lighter-colored inner section.
One of Cincinnati's favorite sweets is modeled after that nut. Buckeye candy is peanut butter fudge that is dipped in dark chocolate, usually leaving the center exposed on the top.
Where to eat buckeyes: Esther Price Fine Chocolates, 7501 Montgomery Road in Kenwood, Ohio, offers buckeyes for sale in the store or for mail order. Store hours are 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9-5 Saturday, closed Sunday.