Iconic Cincinnati – Food Edition

Iconic Cincinnati – Food Edition

Whether you are new to the greater Cincinnati area or have lived here a while, you’ve probably not had the chance to experience all the wonders around you. It’s so easy to take the abundance of things to do for granted and to simply be grateful that there are a plethora of activities available…if we ever need them. I am guilty of hanging out at home instead of getting off my duff and broadening my horizons. Soo this post is not just for you; I’m hoping it inspires me to get out there to explore and experience all the best things to do and see in our little corner of the world. Explore iconic Cincinnati with me, won’t you?

Let’s start with Cincinnati’s unique food scene. Most famous are Cincinnati chili, Montgomery Inn barbecue, Graeter’s black raspberry chip ice cream, goetta (a mixture of beef, pork, oats, and seasonings) which reflects the city’s German heritage, Frisch’s Big Boy, and LaRosa’s Pizzeria.

But did you know about Cincinnati’s legacy of fine dining? In the 1970s, it was home to three Mobil Travel Guide five-star restaurants (New York was home to just two!). They were all French; surprisingly considering Cincinnati’s German heritage. There was Pigall’s, The Gourmet Room which featured a 30-foot mural by the artist Joan Miró (it now hangs in the Cincinnati Art Museum), and The Maisonette which still holds the record for the most consecutive years with a five-star Mobil guide rating, at 41. Beloved Jean-Robert de Cavel, a French-American chef, was chef de cuisine at The Maisonette from 1993 to 2002, executive chef at Jean-Robert at Pigall’s from 2002 to 2009. Pigall’s is now Boca. Below the Maisonette was La Normandie, now the wildly successful Sotto. These were, and are, the best of the best.

Let’s chat about foods that are so good they’ve gained popularity outside of our region. Here are eight Cincinnati favorites to check out in case you haven’t done so already.

Cincinnati Iconic Foods

  • Cincinnati Chili – Well known for its unusual chili, a thinner, soupier version than traditional chili con carne or Tex-Mex, Cincinnati chili is ladled over hot dogs and spaghetti. Customary toppings include cheddar cheese, onions, and beans; specific combinations of toppings are known as “ways”. The most popular order is a “three-way”, which adds shredded cheese to the chili-topped spaghetti (a “two-way”), while a “four-way” or “five-way” adds onions and/or beans before topping with the cheese. “Ways” are served with oyster crackers and a mild hot sauce. Cincinnati chili is seldom eaten by the bowl.  Two chain brands are famous in the region: Skyline and Gold StarHowever, there are plenty of other great places around the city to try Cincinnati chili, but none are more iconic than Camp Washington Chili.


  • Graeter’s Ice Cream – In business since 1870, Graeter’s uses the French Pot method to make its ice cream. It’s a slow, small batch process making only 2 1/2 gallons at a time creating ice cream that is rich, creamy and dense. Black raspberry chip is a Graeter’s bestseller, one of the flavors containing its incredible chocolate chips, some of which are as big as a quarter, in every scoop. There are almost two dozen Graeter’s stores in the tristate area, and Graeter’s is available in every major supermarket.


  • LaRosa’s Pizza – In 1954 Buddy LaRosa opened his first family pizzeria on Cincinnati’s West Side. His Sicilian-born father told him he was crazy. “You gonna sell pizza? You must be crazy!”  Who could argue with him? After all, back then many Americans hadn’t even heard of pizza.  LaRosa’s signature pizza is a thin crust variety made with a distinctive thick, sweet sauce (a family recipe created by the founder’s Aunt Dena) and topped with provolone cheese.


  • Montgomery Inn Barbecue November 1, 1951 the Gregory’s and their four children took over a restaurant and began serving ribs full-time. A local journalist dubbed Ted Gregory “The Ribs King,” a nickname that stayed with Gregory for the rest of his life. The restaurant attracted some famous customers, including Bob Hope, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Other famous diners include several Cincinnati Reds legendary baseball stars as well as actors and entertainers from all over the world. The secret to their success is in the sauce – Wife Matula’s still secret family recipe from 1959.  Try their barbecue in one of two restaurants: The Boathouse, located on the Ohio River is just east of downtown Cincinnati or the original location on Montgomery Road. The barbecue sauce is sold in big box and grocery stores and on Amazon.


  • Izzy’s World Famous Reuben – Izzy’s can trace its roots to Russia. Settling in Cincinnati Izzy Kadetz and wife Rose opened the first kosher style delicatessen West of the Alleghenies in 1901. Consistently ranked as the “best deli in Cincinnati“, visitors to this local deli can indulge in Izzy’s Famous Reuben and their famous potato pancake. The savory sandwich is piled high with Izzy’s famous corned beef, sauerkraut, Izzy’s special dressing and melted imported Swiss cheese served with a bowl of all you can eat locally made dill pickle slices. There are five locations in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region.


  • Frisch’s Big Boy – In 1939 Frisch’s opened the Mainliner restaurant, Cincinnati’s first year-round drive-in named after the first tri-motor passenger airplane. Today, some 85 years later, a replica of the airplane still adorns the restaurant’s sign on Wooster Pike. Famous for their double-decker hamburger called the “Big Boy” with a specially formulated tartar sauce. The chain is best known for its trademark chubby boy with a pompadour hairstyle wearing red-and-white checkered overalls holding a Big Boy sandwich. Frisch’s is also known for its fish sandwich, Swiss Miss sandwich, and hot fudge cake.


  • Glier’s Goetta – Goetta is an old German recipe brought here in the 1800’s by the German immigrants who dominated Cincinnati 200 years ago.  It was a way for poor folks to stretch a few scraps of meat. This celebrated regional dish of pork, beef, steel-cut oats, and seasoning is somewhat similar to sausage and scrapple, is shaped into a roll or a brick and fried up in a pan.  In 1946, Robert Glier returned home from World War II and bought a small store with a sausage kitchen and a smokehouse.  The rest is history.  Glier’s goetta can found stores and at German festivals throughout the summer, especially Glier’s Goettafest at Newport on the Levee.


  • Busken Bakery – Founded in Cincinnati by Joseph C. Busken Sr. in 1928 the company started from humble beginnings, selling baked goods from the counter of a meat market in East Hyde Park on Erie Avenue. In 1962, Busken moved the bakery operation to its current location at the corner of Madison and Edwards roads in Hyde Park. There are four locations in the region. This 4th generation bakery operates around the clock, six days a week and produces more than 100 unique varieties of fresh baked goods every day but is famous for its smile cookie, donuts, and king cake.

And did you know that Pringles, Frank’s RedHot Sauce, Airheads, Slush Puppie, and McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish are all from Cincinnati?

The story of the Filet-O-Fish story is so fun. It began in 1962 with Franchisee Lou Groen from Cincinnati, Ohio.  Groen’s restaurant was located in a predominantly Roman Catholic neighborhood and he noticed a decrease in sales on Fridays.  With determination and a knack for thoroughness, Groen convinced McDonald’s to test a breaded whitefish sandwich to help satisfy customers who abstained from eating meat on Fridays in observance of Lent.

At first, McDonald’s executives were not certain about adding fish to the menu, which required a more complicated cooking process.  As a matter of fact, McDonald’s Founder Ray Kroc had plans for what he called the Hula Burger ― a slice of grilled pineapple and cheese on a bun.  Kroc made a deal with Groen that they would sell the Hula Burger and the Filet-O-Fish on a Friday, and whichever sandwich sold the most would be added to the permanent menu. Kroc was so convinced that his Hula Burger would outsell the Filet-O-Fish that he made a side bet with his first grill man Fred Turner that the loser would buy the winner a new suit.  The final score? Hula Burger: 6, Filet-O-Fish: 350.

“Fred got a new suit and McDonald’s got the Filet-O-Fish,” said McDonald’s Company Historian Mike Bullington.

Whether you are new to the greater Cincinnati area or have lived here for a while, it’s always fun to know – and taste – what the region is known for. What are your Cincinnati favorites? Let us know in the comments.