Wednesday, September 18, 1996
Chili days numbered at historic locale

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

For the last 20 years, John Johnson has served chili while keeping an eye out for an incoming wrecking ball.

He can't help but wonder, is this the year they widen the street and tear down his Camp Washington Chili?

Every year, the answer is the same. It's going to happen. Soon.

But, his Camp Washington restaurant still stands, as it has for 56 years, at the corner of Colerain and Hopple. It continues to serve what its T-shirts swear is the ''best chili in the country.''

That's no brag. John Johnson is too humble to pat himself on the back.

He's just repeating what CBS Morning News once said. That rave review appears on his restaurant's shirts. It's also on the Styrofoam boxes the restaurant uses to cradle a carry-out order of four cheese coneys. With onions.

Lonely at the top

Although the chili parlor is a local institution with a national reputation, fame can't help it from looking forlorn. The red-brick school that once towered over the restaurant is gone. A humongous, canopied gas station rises in its place.

Are Camp Washington Chili's days numbered?

Just this week, City Hall called Mr. Johnson and told him, ''you're going to hear from us soon. Maybe in three to six weeks.'' The city and state plan to buy the building, wreck it and widen Colerain Avenue. Camp Washington Chili will relocate down the block. The new building will be designed by John Johnson's daughter, Christine, a sixth-year architecture student at UC. He'll be under his new roof by the fall of 1997. Maybe.

He thanked the caller for the update and went back to work.

''This is the only place I've ever worked,'' says the man who came to Cincinnati from Kastoria, Greece, ''as a kid in 1951. I went to work here with my uncle. In Greece, I didn't know what chili was.''

He does now. He sells 60 gallons of it every day.

''They're getting closer to widening the street,'' he says. ''But, this work was supposed to be done in 1989. And I'm not supposed to be here.''

Can't complain

For a man who's doing business where a turn-lane should be, John Johnson is not complaining.

You won't hear him gripe about being in limbo for 20 years. He's not angry about the strange way the city treats its businesses with national reputations.

Press him and he'll say that 20 years of delays have kept him from remodeling his restaurant.

''I wanted to put in new windows, clean the bricks outside and re-do my sign.''

He stops himself and waves away such thoughts.

''I can do all that in my new restaurant. I want to get started. I can't wait.''

Someday, the newly widened Colerain Avenue will cut off his restaurant's nose. A lane of blacktop will run right over where, today, his steam table sends chili-scented plumes into the air.

John Johnson turns to that steam table to fill an order. His hands fly over the ingredients. He drops four hot dogs into four buns, gives each one a squirt of mustard and tops them with chili, cheese and onions. In less than two minutes, his hands and the cheese coneys land on the counter. Next!

''I guess,'' he says, ''they are getting serious about buying the building.

''When that happens,'' he adds, ''I can start my new restaurant.''

He won't be moving far. About 30 feet to the north. The new Camp Washington Chili will be a one-floor plan with twice the amount of parking, a drive-up window and 25 more seats inside.

The chili will taste the same. The beef will still be ground twice a week in the kitchen. The chili will still be aged overnight to bring out its spicy taste. But, the restaurant won't look the same.

So, take a look at Camp Washington Chili while you can. Gaze at this thin, three-story building with the side porch and bay window on the second floor.

From a block away, the chili parlor clings to its corner. A first-timer might say it looks like the lone survivor of a bomb blast.

But, John Johnson sees a different picture. To him, ''it's a candle in the night.''

That's the kind of man he is. He can look through the darkness and see the light.