Sunday, July 09, 2000

Bun Voyage, Camp Washington Chili

        The chili tasted a little saltier than usual. Maybe it was the tears. Dry eyes were rare all day Friday and well into Saturday. Camp Washington Chili closed.

        Yet another Cincinnati landmark bit the dust.

        For the fourth time in two weeks, people around the Tristate gathered at a Queen City hangout to relive old memories.

        But, this time, all was not lost. New memories can still be made.

        Camp Washington Chili aims to reopen July 24 in a new building 20 feet north of its old location.

        A street-widening project forced the chili parlor from its original home into a new facility, a modern diner suitable for sitting along some boulevard in Los Angeles.

        Camp Washington Chili is a Cincinnati institution. For 60 years chili has been served in the restaurant's spot at the corner of Colerain and Hopple in what was once a tiny Kroger store.

        Generations of Greater Cincinnatians have wolfed down the spicy stuff CBS Morning News has called “the best chili in the country.” In May, the chili parlor won the restaurant world's Oscar, the James Beard award, when it was named an “American regional classic.”

        Since 1940, cheese coneys and oval platters of chili and spaghetti mounded with beans, onions and cheese have been dished up inside this building of rust-red bricks.

        At 4:17 a.m. Saturday, the last coneys went out the door. Maria Papakirk — daughter of Camp Washington Chili's owner, John Johnson — handed over the carryout order. Her husband, Jim, and her dad looked on as stockbroker Scott Tiffany shared eight cheese coneys with three friends.

        They got the last of the final day's chili. Normally between Friday and early Saturday morning, the restaurant sells 60 gallons of its specialty. On the last day in the old building, customers bought 160 gallons.

        The four final diners ate their coneys in the predawn darkness, made even darker by John Johnson. He switched off the massive “Chili” sign that has towered over Camp Washington for decades, lighting the night sky with its one-word message.

        One last time, he turned the key in the lock of the only place he has worked since 1951 when he came to America as a 14-year-old from Greece.

        “I still can't believe this place is closing,” John Johnson said as he sat down for only the fourth time since he started work at 5:30 a.m. the previous morning. “I grew up in this building. I used to sleep upstairs. I spent my life behind that counter. I don't know anything else. I'm just a chili maker.”

        As he spoke, his eyes grew moist.

        Outside, Scott Tiffany grew philosophical. He explained why he came all the way from Phoenix, “back to the town where I grew up” just for this moment.

        “Cincinnati and chili have a long tradition,” Scott said between bites. As he spoke, thin orange shards of shredded cheese fell from his coney's hot-dog bun.

        “Camp Washington Chili is a pioneer in that tradition,” Scott continued. “This place has given people lots of good memories.”

        The words “tradition” and “memories” were repeated over and over during the chili parlor's last day.

        Even though the restaurant is just moving, not closing, the change has come at a bad time for Cincinnati's institutions.

        The last two weeks have seen:

        • J&G Batsakes Dry Cleaners close after 93 years downtown.

        • Shuller's Wigwam restaurant fold its tent following 78 years of serving meals in College Hill.

        • Clifton's 73-year-old Virginia Bakery announce its closing.

        Now, Camp Washington Chili is leaving its home of 60 years.

        These changes have touched a collective nerve in a city as hidebound as Cincinnati.

        Here, we hold on tight to our traditions, our institutions, our landmarks. They are the repositories of our memories. We associate them with good times and good people. They rekindle our dreams and warm our hearts.

        As long as the landmarks stand and the institutions exist, we feel reassured, comforted. We know we can go to these places and savor memories of good times and good people.

        When these landmarks' days are numbered, we feel compelled to visit them one last time, to retrieve our memories, to pick up a final mental carryout, before the door closes forever.

        And so, people lined up at Camp Washington Chili for, as the restaurant's signs read, a “Last call before the wrecking ball.”

        They stood in line for breakfast at 7 a.m. and for cheese coneys at 3:30 a.m.

        At lunch, the line stretched for a half-block up Hopple Street. Diners waited 20 minutes to be seated.

        During the wait, the five-piece Buffalo Ridge Jazz Band played old tunes that were new when Camp Washington Chili was young.

        In the line, long-timers mingled with first-timers. Everyone waited to be a last-timer.

        Connie Brown stood next to two newcomers, Finneytown High School students Kyle Creasey and Jason Hines.

        Kyle said an “uncle had always told me about this cool place. We had to come on the last day.”

        Jason added an editorial comment: “Making them move sucks.”

        Connie Brown listened and just smiled. She's eaten Camp Washington chili for 30 years, first as a little girl from Avondale, then as a mom from Mount Healthy, now as a grandma from Groesbeck. “I took my kids here. Now when they come to town, this is where they take their kids.

        “I'm going to miss this old building,” she added. “It had such character and so many memories.”

        She remembered as a girl walking outside after a meal and looking at the side steps leading to the two-story building's second floor.

        “I've always wondered what was up there.”

        The steps lead to John Johnson's old one-room flat. His bed — now piled with boxes of T-shirts — is still there. It's next to his office, a converted back porch.

        John Johnson stores the James Beard award in his office. He keeps the highly prized bronze medallion in a plain white paper bag, one of the sacks he uses to pack one-pint containers of chili.

        The subject of the medallion and its container came up after he locked up the old stand for the night and forever.

        “In the new place,” he promised, “we'll put the award in a nice display case.”

        As he spoke, his new place stood empty next door, waiting for its kitchen to fill with aromas and the booths to fill with people.

        Once those finishing touches are in place, the new Camp Washington Chili will be in business. The restaurant will look different. But, the specialties of the house will be the same: chili and memories.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at (513) 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.