ITHACA, NY — The Great Downtown Ithaca Chili Cook-Off has been an annual tradition for 19 years, warming the bellies and perhaps even the hearts of frozen Ithacans on The Commons in the depth of winter.

This year’s Chilifest, presented by Tompkins Trust Company, will take place on Saturday, February 11th, from 11:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., and features vittles from approximately 30 local restaurants all vying to become a chili champion.

Here’s what you need to know:

Your vote counts!

While a panel of judges will decide Best Overall Chili, Best Meat Chili, and Best Vegetarian Chili, the decision for one coveted prize lies with you, the taster. Don’t forget to vote for your favorite for the People’s Choice Chili! Moosewood Restaurant and Ithaca Ale House won first place last year for Vegetarian and Meat/Overall respectively.

But last year’s People’s Choice winner was newcomer Luna Inspired Street Food, with short rib, pork shoulder, black bean, and chocolate-dipped pork belly chili. Stick around until 3:45 p.m to hear the judged winners, with People’s Choice to be announced later.

There’s new chili to sink your spoons into.

2016’s victorious chili-makers will be returning, but they will also be joined by some rookie competitors. Monks on the Commons will participate for the first time, and Executive Chef Bryan Keller was behind Luna’s winning creation last year, FYI.

The Bickering Twins will mark their first fest with braised beef, black bean and vegetable chili, and out-of-towner Lucky Hare Brewing from Hector, N.Y. will offer their beer chili. Other newbies include Due Amici Ristorante, Ithaca Soy/Pure Food Mind and Body, Mix Tapas Kitchen and Bar, C.A.S.H, Ithaca Elk Lodge 636, and Cornell University’s Chi Phi Fraternity. See the full list of participants here.

There’s a chili for everyone…

If you’re worried that the Cook-Off won’t be worth your while because of dietary restrictions, remember this is Ithaca. This year’s competitors do feature plenty of meat as always but you can get vegetarian chili tasters from Moosewood, Viva Taqueria, Bickering Twins, D.P. Dough, Franziska Racker Centers, and Casablanca, vegan chili from Ithaca Soy, Greenstar, CTB/Ithaca Bakery, and Gorgers, even gluten-free chili from Agava.

…there’s more than just chili…

When the clock hits 3:00 and you fear that you can chili no more, never fear. You can soak up the spice in your belly with other chili-themed food items, like chili calzones, chili bomber rolls and garlic knots, even spicy dessert treats from Life’s So Sweet and Just a Taste. Cool down the fire with fermented pickles, honey and other samples from local farms, or bring your I.D. to quench your thirst with local drinks. This year’s fest features beers from Bacchus, Wagner, Grist Iron, Lucky Hare, Bandwagon, Ithaca Beer Co. and Rooster Fish, as well as wine from Six Mile Creek, and Wagner Vineyards.

…seriously, you don’t even have to eat or be outside.

If for some reason you hate chili but love massages, karaoke, roller skating, or mustaches, the Cook-Off is still for you. The Finger Lakes School of Massage will offer free massages from current students in their lobby on The Commons in the Rothschild Building, and you can warm up in Tompkins Trust Company Family Fun Zone in Center Ithaca. There will be free face painting, crafts and games indoors from 11:30 a.m. – 3:15 p.m., and free indoor roller skating with the Ithaca League of Women Rollers from 12 – 4 p.m.

Meanwhile all day outside at the Bernie Milton Pavilion, you can sing off some of that heartburn with the Chili Idol Karaoke Competition, open all day, for prizes and trophies. In Bank Alley, the Ithaca Beard and Mustache Club will host the 8th annual Chili ‘Stache and Beard Competition. For some categories, no beard is actually necessary! Compete for the Crafty All Ages Chili Stache, Full Natural Beard, Full Groomed Beard, Partial Beard and Chili Stache.

Purchase pre-sale tickets at the Downtown Visitors Center, or at Aurora St. or College Ave. locations of Collegetown Bagels. Day-of tickets are cash-only, $5 for five tastes, or $10 for 11 tastes (including wine, beer and food). There are also VIP tickets available, which include separate VIP lines and a chili necklace: 10 Tastes for $20 and 22 Tastes for $40.

All photos by Matt Marsh.




Jennifer Wholey is a feature writer and Head of Dining Partnerships for the Ithaca Voice. Contact her at