You can't visit DC without trying Ben's Chili Bowl. It's so iconic, so landmark, and filled with so much history, you just have to visit it. Oh, not to mention the chili, which is addictively spicy, smoky, and just all around delicious. For some reason presidents (not just American!) seem to have an affinity for this place.
Back when it first opened in the 1950's, segregation was still very much in effect in DC. U Street became known as "Black Broadway," a place where many great jazz artists performed. Jazz giants like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole would stop by Ben's Chili Bowl when they were on U Street to perform.
Martin Luther King Jr. frequented the place as well. The place has survived through countless difficult periods, such as the 1968 Washington D.C. riots (caused by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.) and the very disruptive construction of the U Street/Cardozo Metro station.
Bill Cosby is also a HUGE fan of the place, having taken his wife here on dates before they were married.
In fact, there's a sign inside that, until recently, said:
"Who eats free at Ben's Chili Bowl: Bill Cosby, no one else"
which was changed during the 2008 campaign to say:
"Who eats free at Ben's Chili Bowl: Bill Cosby. The Obama Family"
Lo and behold, right before President Obama was inaugurated in January of 2009, he actually stopped by to get a half smoke chili dog. Apparently he did pay, so the sign was again changed to say:
"Who eats free at Ben's Chili Bowl: Bill Cosby. The Obama Family. But he paid"
More recently (the same week we were there, in fact), French president Sarkozy and his family stopped by for some chili dogs as well.
How could we not try this place? Though the line snaked around the block, we dutifully stepped to the end of the line and patiently waited in anticipation of our half smokes!
Check out that line! I think we ended up waiting about half an hour or so before we were able to enter.
Once you enter, it's just as crowded! People are lined up at the counter ordering their dishes. If you have a large enough party (I think something like 5 or greater), you can get table service in the back, which is what we did.
The Signature Dish - The Original Chili Half Smoke $5.20
¼lb. half pork and beef smoked sausage on a warm steamed bun topped with mustard, onions and spicy homemade chili sauce. Bryan's sister ordered this with a side of their Chili Cheese Fries (The Works) - $5.20. You can request that the half-smoke be split and grilled, resulting in more charred edges, which I love. The chili has a great smoky flavor which goes quite well with the sausage. Definitely a must-try.
You don't have to get the chili cheese fries. I just got the The Original Chili Half Smoke, which comes with a side of chips. Vegetarians will be pleased to know that they have a vegetarian version of the chili, which you can put on top of fries or anything else. (None of us tried it, so I can't comment on how it tastes)
Bryan decided to go all out and get The Original Chili Half Smoke AND a ¼ lb All Beef Cheeseburger ($4.90). Though he said both were good, he preferred the Half Smoke to the Cheeseburger. We all agreed that we liked the Chili Fries ($4.10) [not pictured] better than the Chili Cheese Fries ($5.20). Maybe it's because the cheese diluted the beautiful smokiness of the chili.
Nom nom nom nom nom.
In the end, it's definitely worth visiting this place. I won't lie to you, the food's pretty greasy. Also, it does get a bit crowded and overrun (probably by tourists!). However, it's still pretty neat to sit inside and sense the historic significance of the place while enjoying a split half smoke that probably tastes exactly the same as it did fifty years ago. They still use the same secret chili recipe. The counter and chairs are also the original ones from the 1950's. Founder Ben Ali passed away in October, but his two sons still run the place. Their mother, Virginia, also stops by pretty often.
It's a fun place! Definitely check it out!
Ben's Chili Bowl
1213 U St NW
Washington, DC 20009
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