How to Build a Top-Your-Own Chili Bar

Score big with a customizable chili bar for your next tailgate party (or any time of year!).

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collage illustration of people attending at top-your-own-chili tailgate party
Photo: Meredith Studio

Seeking a tailgate party centerpiece—or simply searching for a reason to host some pals for a feast? One of our favorite ways to make dinner a show: A DIY chili bar. It's cozy, easy-to-stretch for a large gathering, a cinch to keep warm in a slow cooker and can be adjusted to accommodate a wide variety of food allergies and dietary preferences.

Setting out the chili station as a bar allows you to catch more of the game (or catch up with your guests) and lets each diner choose his or her own chili adventure.

How to Host a Chili Bar Party

As you prepare for chili bar party kickoff, we have your four "quarter," or four-step, agenda to ensure an unforgettable and stress-free party.

Step 1: Choose Your Chili

As you assemble your home team (AKA guest list), consider the food preferences of those who will be in attendance. Are there any vegetarians? How about Whole 30-ers steering clear of beans for the month? If possible, tailor your chili recipe selection to satisfy as many attendees as possible. If your championship chili recipe choice includes ground beef, for example, you may want to consider serving it on the side (along with plant-based meat crumbles) to please vegans and carnivores alike. Or, if you can, you can make two different kinds of chili for guests to choose from.

The best chili recipe for a chili bar is simmered low and slow so the flavors can meld. Consider stirring and cooking it the day before, refrigerating overnight, then reheating and keeping warm all party long in a slow cooker on LOW.

"Draft" your MVP chili from our hundreds of chili recipe ideas.

Step 2: Accessorize Your Chili Bar

Just as a player suits up with pads, a helmet, and cleats to prepare for the game, hosting a chili bar party requires the proper equipment.

Lodge 6-Quart Cast-Iron Enamel Dutch Oven

Dutch oven with lid and trivet

A Dutch oven will come in handy if you're whipping up a stovetop chili recipe.

Buy it: $69.99;

Crockpot 8-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker

stainless steel crockpot

Keep your chili warm in a slow cooker for all four quarters.

Buy it: $89.99

Zulay Soup Ladle Spoon with Comfortable Grip

three insulated soup ladles

You'll need a heat-safe ladle to scoop the chili.

Buy it: $7.95;

Williams Sonoma Pantry Soup/Pasta Plate

White chili or soup bowl
Williams Sonoma

Count your current bowl stock, and invest in more as needed.

Buy it: $49.95 for six;

Stainless Steel Soup Spoons

multicolored stainless steel soup spoons

Be sure you have enough spoons on-hand for each guest.

Buy it: $18.99 for 8;

Step 3: Assemble Your Chili Bar Team of Toppings

Quite possibly the winning play of the chili bar is adding enough toppings to the squad. Mix-ins and garnishes are what really make the chili bar concept so fun, so consider a wide variety of carbs to dunk and crumble on top, dairy to swirl in, veggies and herbs to crown the chili as well as a few other flavor boosters (ahem, lime wedges!). Consider storing the dairy products like cold cheeses, sour cream, Greek yogurt and ranch dressing in small bowls nestled in a larger tray of ice for food safety.

bowls of chili garnished with an array of toppings

Choose any or all of the following 28 chili bar topping ideas:

  • Guacamole
  • Salsa
  • Diced tomatoes
  • Sliced avocado
  • Diced red onion
  • Sliced olives
  • Sliced scallions
  • Sliced jalapeños
  • Sliced radishes
  • Pepperoncini
  • Chopped chives
  • Chopped fresh cilantro
  • Lime wedges
  • Shredded Cheddar cheese
  • Crumbled queso fresco
  • Sour cream
  • Ranch dressing
  • Plain Greek yogurt
  • Queso dip in a mini slow cooker (such as this Crockpot Lunch CrockFood Warmer, $27.50;
  • Hot sauce
  • Cornbread squares
  • Baguette slices
  • Fritos ($3.99 for 9.25 ounces;
  • Cheetos Flamin Hot Puffs ($3.99 for 8 ounces;
  • Crushed tortilla chips ($2.99 for 12 ounces;
  • Tater tots
  • Corn Nuts ($23.79 for 12 4-ounce bags;
  • Goldfish crackers ($6.28 for 30 ounces;

Step 4: Build Your Dream Bowl

As you set up your tablescape, think about the way your diners can most easily build their own bowls. Start with the bowls on the far end, then position the chili before all of the toppings. Lastly, stack napkins and place spoons on the opposite end so everyone can dive into their trophy-worthy creation.

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