CINCINNATI – Candidates may clash about streetcars, rage about health-care reform or education spending, but wherever they fall on the political spectrum, they're of one mind on this:
Price Hill Chili is the place to court Cincinnati's west side voters.
The 52-year-old chili parlor, bar, party room and community water cooler will host a meet-and-greet party for Gov. John Kasich on Tuesday, the latest in a long line of political events there, including campaign appearances by:
• Vice President Dick Cheney in 2004
• Gov. Ted Strickland in 2008
• Mike DeWine in 2006, then running for U.S. senator
• Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich in 2012
• Rep. Steve Chabot and whomever the Democrats run against him every two years
• More candidates for offices in Cincinnati, Green Township, Hamilton County and the state legislature than you could shake a hanging chad at.
"It's the Plymouth Rock of politics on the west side of Cincinnati," said Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, a veteran of many political campaigns and Price Hill Chili meals.
In a town blanketed by the Skyline, Gold Star, Dixie, and Empress chili chains and independents like Camp Washington Chili and Pleasant Ridge Chili, how did Price Hill Chili become a mandatory stop for so many campaigns?
"It's nothing we planned," said Steve Beltsos, co-owner and son of founder Sam Beltsos. "It's a family atmosphere, and if you want an honest opinion, you'll get it. But everyone is welcome."
His father, Sam Beltsos, emigrated from Greece and opened Price Hill Chili in 1962 with 12 bar stools and five booths. His homemade chili and broad diner menu (goetta omelette, anyone?) was a hit from the start, prompting him and sons Steve, Paul and Chris to expand repeatedly to grow to 350 seats sprawled across six dining rooms and three kitchens in adjoining buildings on Glenway Avenue at Guerley Road.
From left: Sam Beltsos, owner and founder of Price Hill Chili, and son Steve Beltsos, stand in the patio of the 52-year-old chili parlor that has become a social center of Cincinnati's west side and a must-visit for politicians seeking west-side votes for everything from township trustee to president of the country. Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO
Just try to visit when it's not busy. Open 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 2 a.m. on weekends, it has become inextricably linked with the social life of thousands of west siders of all ages and a partner with west-side institutions, none more than Elder High School, just down Glenway.
"When you're younger at football games, you always chanted, "'Price Hill Chili after the game,'" said Tim Schiller, referring to Elder's boisterous student cheering section. He graduated from Elder last spring and joined classmate Joe Ratterman for breakfast at the restaurant last Friday.
"I've always come here since I was young, especially after basketball games," Ratterman said.
I grew up in Westwood, the son of an Elder grad who grew up in the shadow of Elder on Gilsey Avenue. Like a lot of extended west side families, mine frequents the restaurant on more and more occasions as other family-run restaurants fade away. When it was time for the 25th reunion of my St. Catharine Elementary School class, we gathered in a reserved room with pitchers of beer and sandwich trays. If a grade-school reunion sounds odd, consider that I happened to show up for dinner there once with my mom and other family while my Aunt Pat's St. Williams grade school class was celebrating its 65th reunion. It's a west-side thing.
Funeral wakes, protein after bar hopping, retirees' breakfasts: Whatever the occasion, Price Hill Chili happily hosts. Politicians native to the west side figured that out long ago.
"It was always a must visit if you wanted to get your name out on the west side," said Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, who grew up in Price Hill. "It's just now that everyone's figured it out,"
"I have found that any time of day that you're there, you're going to run into people from the neighborhood," Cranley said. "You're going to hear what's on people minds and also have the opportunity to tell them what you're trying to accomplish."
Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, had a hand in vaulting the restaurant into the national consciousness when he arranged for Vice President Dick Cheney to appear there during the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in 2004. Then, as now, Hamilton County was a swing county in a swing state.
"I would like to think that I was one of the people who started that tradition in earnest when we had Vice President Cheney there," he said. "It really has become a must-visit location. It represents Cincinnati, it represents the west side, it represents just ordinary people."
The Beltsos family still has framed newspaper stories from the Cheney visit hung near an entrance, alongside a framed story featuring Gov. Ted Strickland, a visit arranged by State Rep. Denise Driehaus, a Delhi native (and my first cousin).
"It was my annual fundraiser, and the (Beltsos) boys and Sam posed with the governor. I framed it and I gave it to him for Christmas," Driehaus said.
That sort of familiarity is commonplace. "Price Hill Chili is a west-side institution. Everybody knows where it is, everybody's been there, everybody enjoys the camaraderie there. It's such a great place to mingle," she said.
And not just for campaigning. On Election Day, Democratic and Republican candidates and supporters stake out sections of the restaurant to eat and rib their opponents.
"It's one of the things I love on Election Day. There is a certain kind of jubilance that all the campaigning is over," Triantafilou said.
In a part of town that leans heavily Republican, "We (Democrats) go there on purpose," Driehaus said. "I think it's fun to provide some political balance,"
Sam Beltsos makes no secret of his preference for Republican policies, but he and his sons Steve and Chris have put aside their political beliefs to welcome all who behave themselves.
"This is a family establishment. We don't want any drunks or anything," Sam Beltsos said.
Cranley, a Democrat, attests to the hospitality. "I have been welcomed with open arms by the whole Beltsos family. They have been great to me my whole career, and I'm just so glad have been able to get to know the whole family," he said.
The family won't get much of a political breather after Kasich's visit. Patricia Bruns, a Democratic candidate for the Ohio Board of Education, is planning her own campaign visit there later this month.