Friday, April 19, 2002

It's the original Skyline's time

Price Hill parlor closing after a half-century of serving chili the friendly way

By John Johnston,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The final five-way might be served with tears.

        After 52 1/2 years, the original Skyline Chili restaurant at 3822 Glenway Ave. will retire at the close of business Sunday.

        “Oh gosh, it's going to be sad. I'll bawl like a baby,” says waitress Danella Schnetzer, who has been serving customers at the Price Hill chili parlor for 24 years.

[photo] Bill Lambrinides dishes up some coneys at the original restaurant.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        This is, after all, no ordinary fast-food joint. It's the place where the Lambrinides family first dished up their version of a Cincinnati gastronomic tradition, one ladle of chili at a time.

        Renovating the old parlor, perched on a sloped lot in a building more than 100 years old, wasn't feasible. So workers will pack up the 12-gallon chili kettle, the ice machine and the oval platters. They'll haul them a half-block to 3714 Warsaw Ave., where a gleaming, modern restaurant with a drive-through will open a week from today.

        But what about the character of the old restaurant? Can they pack that up and bring it along? Because without a doubt, the place has a personality as real as the people who've eaten and worked there.

Skyline's first family

        A large black-and-white photo, shot in the mid- to late '50s, hangs in the restaurant. It shows a serious-looking young man at a steam table, his dark hair combed straight back. He holds a plate of spaghetti in one hand, a chili ladle in the other.

        “We always had on a white shirt, apron and a tie,” 74-year-old Bill Lambrinides says, and indeed, that's how he's dressed in the picture. His hair, now gray, is still combed straight back.

        He worked for his father, Nicholas, who opened Skyline Chili on Oct. 8, 1949. At age 69, Nicholas had already lived a full life.

        He had arrived in America by freighter from Kastoria, Greece, in 1912, eventually settling in Cincinnati. He worked for 12 years before he could afford to send for his wife, Alexandra. They had five children.

[photo] Bill Lambrinides (center) always wore a white shirt and tie when serving coneys in the 1950s.
(Skyline photo)
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        Nicholas cooked for railroad crews, worked at a couple of hotels and a short-order restaurant, and gained experience at Empress Chili before deciding to open his own place on Glenway Avenue.

        From the start, sons Lambert, Bill and Christie worked alongside him, joined later by James and John. Their mother, who didn't speak English, was a fixture in the restaurant until she was almost 90.

        Legend has it the parlor took its name from the kitchen window view, but Bill Lambrinides hedges on this. “We had a skylight in the store. We looked at that and said, let's call it Skylight.” But then someone noticed the view of the city from a second-floor apartment, which was used for storage. Skyline it was.

        The parlor's name was the least of their worries. Customers didn't immediately embrace an eatery with such a limited menu: chili ladled over spaghetti, topped with grated cheese and optional beans or onions; or a hot dog dressed with chili, cheese, onions and dab of mustard.

        “We had to indoctrinate them,” Bill Lambrinides says. “We'd put a sample in a dish.”

        That helped, as did the aroma of meat sauce with secret spices drifting to nearby Seton and Elder high schools, and Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary.

Staff is family, too

        Skyline had become a neighborhood staple by the time Ruth Bauer began waiting tables on a football Friday in 1968.

        “It was crazy. Just crazy. I felt like a bull in a china shop. There were lots of kids in here and they were going, "Lady!' When I went home that night I thought, "Why did I take that job?' ”

        Almost 34 years later, here's why she still has it:

        “I really loved the people I worked with. We're just like a family here.”

        Years ago, when she worked until closing at 3 a.m., Mrs. Bauer and co-workers huddled at the counter for after-hours poker games with a 25-cent pot. Then they'd head downtown for 5 a.m. Mass at St. Louis Church.

        “People in there would say, "I smell chili.' Of course it was us, because we were in uniform.”

        The Lambrinides family set the tone for a close-knit staff, she says. They were hard-working. Dedicated. And kind.

        They showed kindness in small ways, such as Alexandra cooking up meatless lunches on Fridays for Skyline's Catholic employees. And in big ways: When Mrs. Bauer and her husband were seriously injured in a car accident in 1975, she received an outpouring of support from bosses, co-workers and customers.

[photo] The original Skyline chili parlor opened in 1949.
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        It took her eight weeks to recover. “My job was waiting,” says Mrs. Bauer, who is 79.

        “The Lambrinideses made this place an icon. There will never be another family like them.”

        Ruth Schnurr, who is 74, started work at the restaurant in 1962, the year Nicholas died. She later worked in a Bridgetown store, but is again a server at Price Hill.

        “They made the chili right back there,” she says, motioning to the kitchen. “The recipes were all written in Greek.”

        And kept a secret. Bill Lambrinides, who retired in 1994, has been asked for the recipe many times. How often has he divulged it?

        “Zip,” he says.

Customers come back

        Today, chili for Skyline's 127 stores is made at the company's Fairfield commissary. The years have brought other changes, of course. For instance, servers now punch orders into computers, rather than call out “Jumbo four-way, light cheese!”

        One thing hasn't changed: The Price Hill staff is still close.

        “It's not to say we don't sometimes get aggravated with each other,” Ms. Schnetzer says. “But above all, we like each other. It's been fun. Like going to a party.”

        Sometimes, the party came to them.

        Rose Callahan, knowing co-workers couldn't make it to her 1971 wedding, stopped in the chili parlor after the ceremony.

        “I can still see her standing here in her wedding gown,” Mrs. Bauer says.

        Ms. Callahan has worked at the store off and on since 1969, her erratic work history the result of having 12 children. Seven of them have worked for Skyline, including five in the Price Hill store.

        The bond among co-workers extends to customers, most of whom are everyday folks from the working-class neighborhood.

        “Everybody here is friendly. It's nice to come in and be recognized, no matter how you're dressed or what kind of day you're having or who you are,” says Ellen Wisnicky, who lives in the neighborhood and was having lunch with her 13-month-old son, Andrew, last week.

        Like the staff, longtime customers have fond memories of the original Skyline.

        Jim Karle, a 49-year-old civil engineering technician from Green Township, was 10 the first time he set foot inside. It was an unforgettable scene: the owners speaking Greek amid clouds of steam, “and all the really beautiful girls who worked here.”

        He felt like a visitor in an exotic, foreign land.

        Bob Williams, 71, who grew up in Price Hill but now lives in Dearborn County, has been a regular since the day the restaurant opened. When one of the counter stools succumbed to overuse some time ago, Ms. Schnetzer bagged it up and presented it to Mr. Williams, a retired Cincinnati Fire Department paramedic.

        “You've been sitting in it all these years, so we saved it for you,” she told him.

        Cindy Wayman of Westwood, an administrative assistant for the city of Cincinnati, has introduced eight Spanish exchange students to Skyline. Not all of them liked the chili, she admits.

        But some did. “And this was always their last stop before we put them on the plane back to Spain.”

        The place has seen its share of celebrities, too.

        “Mel Torme came in once. His driver told him he had to go to the original,” Ms. Schnetzer says.

        “Jerry Springer used to come in after the (Channel 5) news at night, probably once or twice a week.

        “Sarah Jessica Parker came in one night, years ago. Remember the movie Girls Just Want to Have Fun? She brought a bunch of (movie) buttons.”

        But it's regulars like Ben Hart who'll feel a twinge of sadness come Sunday. He's been eating three-ways here for almost 40 years, and in 1999 he won $50,000 in a drawing celebrating the restaurant's 50th birthday.

        “It's like my car makes an automatic turn into the parking lot when I go by,” says the Postal Service mail handler from Delhi Township. “I'm going to miss it, I really am.”

        He's not the only one.

        “I don't like change. I like this place,” says Mrs. Bauer, the server who's worked at the original store the longest.

        But it's time for a change. The pale green straight-back chairs are out of style. The ceiling is stained and the carpet is worn. The place looks tired.

        Not the people, though.

        Everyone interviewed for this story plans to eat or work at the new place on Warsaw Avenue.

        And in the end, it's the people who give a place its personality.

        They won't change. Neither will the chili.


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