City of Seattle honors 100 years of Mike’s Chili Parlor in Ballard
100 years ago, in 1922, Mike’s Chili Parlor opened in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.
“My great-grandfather came over from Greece in, I think, 1913,” said the fourth-generation owner, Mike Semandiris, who conveniently shares his great-grandfather’s name. “He fought in World War I, for America, he came all the way out here to Seattle and decided to start his own place. He started with a chili cart. It would have been, like, two or three blocks from where we are now. This area was shipping and lumber mills, real blue collar.”
The cart turned into a restaurant, and in 1939 the elder Semandiris built the location that stands today; a squat, brick building with Art Deco accents, located right off the Ballard Bridge off-ramp.
And today, the City of Seattle is issuing a proclamation to honor a century of chili and community.
“There’s a heartbeat inside this building that’s maybe unknown to people who drive by and it has a lot to do with the community that’s been built here,” said Semandiris. “I don’t think my great-grandfather decided, ‘I want to be here for 100 years.’ We just kept coming every day and every month and every year and so eventually you’re here for 100 years.”
When I visited, the restaurant was full of locals, all men, mostly laborers, who have been coming for decades.
“Thirty years,” said Marty Joseph, who was sitting beside his brother, another longtime regular. “I get the same thing every time. A Mike’s deluxe burger and a cup of chili with the works, which is onions, jalapenos, and cheese.”
Mike’s Chili Parlor serves many variations of two things: burgers and chili, a family recipe that’s been passed down through oral tradition.
“I’ve never seen the recipe written down,” Semandiris said. “I don’t know if it was ever written down. When I started working here my father was like, ‘alright, we’re going to make chili today.’ A scoop of that and a scoop of that, there would be a little brown paper bag that had the little secret spices in it. That’s how I learned to make it, just watching him make it. Problem is, I’m the only one that knows the full recipe. Probably a good idea to start passing that down.”
Semandiris thinks the simple menu and low overhead are part of why they’ve stayed afloat for a century.
“Our flattop grill has been here since 1939,” said Semandiris. “It’s just lasted forever.”
And owning the property doesn’t hurt. In 2006, 84-year-old Edith Macefield made international news when she turned down a million dollars from developers, refusing to move out of her little Ballard house. So they built a big shopping center around her. Mike’s Chili Parlor is right across the street from Edith’s old house and they were also made an offer.
“We’ve never been interested in selling anything,” said Semandiris. “I wouldn’t say never, but we love doing this. As long as we can do it, we’re going to keep doing it. I’m thankful that my grandfather was smart enough to buy this property when they built the building.”
Speaking of great grandpa Mike, why chili?
“Most people don’t think chili is a Greek thing, but if you look around the country, there are some really popular chili places in the midwest, Detroit, Cincinnati area, Pittsburgh. I even have some friends in Los Angeles; a bunch of Greek people that operate chili places,” said Semandiris. “Outside of, maybe Texas, the Greeks probably run the chili in this country.”
Semandiris speculates that his family’s chili is an Americanized version of a Greek meat sauce called kima.
If you haven’t been to Mike’s Chili House, it’s high time you visited the classic, 100-year-old, family-run Seattle business.
“Moving around here in the mornings by myself, when I’m opening up, I feel like I’m walking around in my father’s space and my grandfather’s space and my great-grandfather’s space. Anything that I do, like a proclamation or a celebration, I want to make sure that I’m really honoring [them] more than I’m honoring what we’re doing today. Without these guys really putting their time and effort in, it would never have happened.”