DC at Night

DC at Night

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dining in DC: Ben's Chili Bowl

Welcome to Ben's
When my knowledgeable foodie friends visit here in DC, they want to forego the fancy restaurants and head straight for Ben's Chili Bowl, arguably the most iconic and historic eatery in Washington. Opened in the summer of 1958, the landmark on U Street is visited by neighborhood regulars, tourists, celebrities, and world leaders. Its most popular item is its original chili half-smoke, a one-quarter pound half-pork and half-smoked beef sausage on a warmed steamed bun, topped with mustard, onions, and a spicy chili sauce from a family recipe that has remained the same for 54 years and is recognized worldwide as DC's signature dish..

While the eatery is filled with pictures of famous diners who have eaten at Ben's, none of them are more essential to the history of the place than regular customer Bill Cosby. Cosby says he 1st began coming to Ben's when he was in the Navy and stationed at nearby Bethesda, Maryland. Cosby's most noted appearance occurred in 1985 when he held a national press conference at Ben's to celebrate the success of his #1 TV show.

Outside mural completed this summer
The eatery also received a tremendous boost in January of 2008 when then president-elect Barack Obama 1st came to Ben's for lunch just days before his inauguration. To honor the pair, visitors encounter a sign near the register that says "People Who Eat Free: Bill Cosby, President Obama/Family, And No One Else."

But from the initial days the eatery was opened by Trinidadian-born immigrant Ben Ali and his wife Virginia, the site was populated by some of the biggest black entertainers of the time. U Street was home to so many clubs that it earned the nickname "Black Broadway." It was not uncommon to see such luminaries as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory, and even Dr. Martin Luther King eating or just hanging out.

But in 1968, rage over the assassination of Dr. King ignited a wave of violence that devastated much of the city. Most of the city closed, but Ben's remained opened. Ali wrote "Soul Brother" in soap on the front window in the hope that looters and arsonists would not strike his establishment. The owner received special permission to allow Ben's to stay open after curfew to feed the policemen, firemen, activists, and public servants who were trying to restore order.

The half-smokes are a'  grillin'
There is even D.C. history behind the building before it became Ben's. Built in 1910, the edifice housed Washington's 1st silent theater, the Minnehaha. Today, history can be found throughout the eatery. In addition to the hundreds of photos, much of the furnishings are the same as when Ben's opened in 1958.

The restaurant has been featured on several Food Network shows and the Travel Channel's Man v. Food. It has been written up in almost all noted dining publications. In 2004, the James Beard Foundation named Ben's one of the "down home eateries that have carved out a special place on the American culinary landscape." In January 2009, food magazine Bon Appetit named Ben's one of the country's 10 best chili spots, asserting that "no reasonable discussion of great chili joints can take place without mention of this U Street institution."

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What Others Say:

The Prices Do DC Rating:
***** 5 out of 5 plates (4 for the food and service, 1 for the history)

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