Ok, normally trying out a new restaurant wouldn’t technically fit into the “new experience” category I was going for in my list of goals for 2013. But, Ben’s Chili Bowl is literally considered a Washington, DC landmark. Therefore, I felt the exception could easily be made. So last weekend my dear friend Renee was visiting and we worked up our appetites while doing some sightseeing in DC. After getting our fill of the DC monuments, it was time to fill our gullets.
Ben’s signature dish is the “Original Chili Half-Smoke,” which is a ¼ pound half-pork/half-beef sausage, topped with mustard, onions and spicy homemade chili. I normally do not eat meat unless I know it was humanely raised on a responsible free roaming farm (what I refer to as happy meat), but I made an exception to my rule in order to try one of DC’s most famous dishes. Pictured below is the Chili Half-Smoke, but I topped mine with their veggie chili, rather than their original chili, because it is less spicy (and I am an extreme sissy when it comes to spicy food!). One of Ben’s most famous customers is Bill Cosby and the Half-Smoke is his favorite dish. So much so that he is known to eat up to six of them at one time!
Ben’s Chili Bowl was founded in 1958 by Ben Ali in the District’s U Street corridor. At that time, Washington, DC was officially segregated and U Street was known as “Black Broadway.” Famous jazz greats, such as Miles Davis and Nat King Cole, used to eat at Ben’s after they performed at U Street clubs. During the riots of 1968 after the assassination of MLK, Jr., Ben obtained permission to keep his restaurant open past curfew so he could feed both the police and firefighters working the riots, as well as the activists. Decades later, the construction of the U Street Metro Station forced many businesses to close, but Ben was determined to stay open and he fed the construction workers working on the Metro project. According to the Washington Post, Ben’s “is probably the only business on this strip that survived both the 1968 riots and the construction phase of the Metro Green Line.” Ben and Virginia Ali were later inducted into the DC Hall of Fame.
Ben’s Chili Bowl appears in movies, such as The Pelican Brief and State of Play, as well as dozens of TV shows. It was also featured on the Travel Channel’s Man v. Food. Ben’s Chili Bowl has also found a home in many novels, setting the stage as a meeting location for fictional characters.
In addition to Bill Cosby and the jazz legends mentioned earlier, many other celebrities have also been to Ben’s Chili Bowl. Chris Tucker, Bono, and President Obama, just to name a few. Many celebrities may have expected the royal treatment at Ben’s, but there was always a sign on display that said, “List of who eats free at Ben’s: Bill Cosby, NO ONE ELSE.” The sign was later updated in 2008 to include the Obama family.