Real Chili Revisited: Cathedral Square

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I decided to pay a visit to this other branch to get a bowl of this late-night favorite and to get the real story behind Real Chili.

I decided to pay a visit to the other branch to get a bowl of this late-night favorite and to get the real story behind Real Chili.

“Can I have a single Medium with spaghetti and beans?” Any good Marquette student has said this or some something similar on a Saturday night. But did you know, further down Wells St. just before Cathedral Square is a Real Chili that shows you a different perspective on this classic Milwaukee dining establishment.

I decided to pay a visit to the other branch to get a bowl of this late-night favoring and to get the real story behind Real Chili.

While both branches have the familiar U-shaped counter, the larger Cathedral Square location has additional seating options around it. A man in a Harley Davidson shirt welcomed my friends and me and introduced himself as James. James has been working at Real Chili for almost 40 years. “I started at the Marquette branch in the 70’s. It was the first one,” he said with a smile as he started our order of two bowls of single medium chili (with spaghetti and beans, of course).

“It started off with the recipe that was bought from a place called Chili John’s that used to be on Oakland Ave.,” James continued. “This one opened up in the 1980’s and I’ve been working here ever since.” James seemed at home behind the counter, moving gracefully between the spaghetti and bean cauldrons, chatting with the regulars and even jokingly telling me to man the counter if anyone walked in while he was in the back. I looked up at the fading photos of Real Chili ads from the late 70’s and the pictures of diners that decorate the familiar bright red walls of the restaurant.

Every bowl of chili comes with the option of spaghetti and beans, a side of free oyster crackers and for just a few quarters you get a choice of toppings: cheese, sour cream, onions or jalapeños. We ordered two beers with our heaping bowls of chili.

The genius of Real Chili, in part, comes from its ability to customize your order. I like mine with extra extra sour cream and as many oyster crackers as the bowl can handle. “I like mine with just a little bit of cheese and sour cream,” James answered when I asked him how he liked his chili.

The chili never disappoints. This may be why it has been featured in shows like “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” and has stood the test of time for over 80 years. So, the next time you find yourself craving something warm that is sure to fill you up, don’t dismiss the idea of this bowl of greasy goodness as just a “drunk” food. Instead, head over to either of the Real Chili locations on Wells St. Who knows? You might even run into the friendly face of James.

Every bowl of chili comes with the option of spaghetti and beans.

Every bowl of chili comes with the option of spaghetti and beans.