When anyone comes to Washington, DC the obvious things to do would be to visit the number of monuments there and possibly stop by a couple of the free museums as well. Although DC isn’t really known for their food scene, one food establishment stands out amongst the rest when it comes to the nation’s capital. Ben’s Chili Bowl has stood the test of time and has survived a number of events through the history of the United States, making it an iconic landmark in its own right. It remains a popular destination for tourists and locals alike not only for its historical significance but also because it’s actually got some killer food too. Not to mention the fact that it’s a popular spot for both celebrities and politicians, so you never know if you’re gonna run into some pretty powerful people while chowing down on your half-smoke and chili cheese fries.
A Humble Hot Dog’s Place in American History
On August 22, 1958 Ben Ali and Virginia Rollins opened Ben’s Chili bowl in a building that once belonged to the first silent movie house in Washington, DC. During the early periods Ben’s was known to serve famous jazz musicians that performed at the clubs nearby along U Street.
Ben’s Chili Bowl holds an important place in history, especially during the 1968 riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The restaurant remained opened throughout the riots despite all the violence and fed firemen, policemen and activists alike. Even though most of the neighborhood was destroyed as a result of the riots, Ben’s remains as one of the few establishments to have survived to this day.
Fast forward to January 2009. The president of the United States is a man by the name of Barack Obama. He dined in this historic restaurant when then-DC Mayor Adrian Fenty took him as a welcome to the nation’s capital. To this day, there is still a sign over the seat where President Obama sat and ate his half-smoke. Not only that, but Obama and his family are only a few people who can enjoy a meal at this fine establishment free of charge.
Ben’s Chili Bowl: Home of the Famous Chili Dog
Alright, history lesson is over. Here’s the quick lowdown, the thing you must order is the half-smoke. It’s kind of like a hot dog and sausage hybrid. A combination of pork and beef, it’s prepared on the flat top getting a nice sear; just adding to that amazing snappy exterior that makes the half-smoke an amazing bite. I got mine in the traditional style topped with their special house chili, simple yellow mustard and a couple of onions all stuffed into a steamed bun. Simplicity at its finest, you can’t ask for anything more. Alright maybe you can, I got some chili cheese fries too. Not a bad side to have alongside your half-smoke, a truly decadent treat. Overall the food is what you would expect. It’s not going to be receiving any prestigious accolades but it is truly a delicious bite you’ll be craving whenever you visit DC.
For me, what really sets this place apart from any other restaurant is the atmosphere. Everything from the menu above the counter to the booths lining the walls scream vintage. It looks like nothing has been replaced and you are just transported back in time to a 60’s style diner. Each member of the staff has a unique personality – from the loyal following of customers making small talk with the cooks behind the counter to the servers making their way around to each table ensuring everyone is having a great time. When I visited Ben’s, one of the servers insisted that he take a photo of me under the archway which proudly read “Ben’s Chili Bowl: Home of the Famous Chili Dog.” Not only that but he also made sure that I got my picture in the same seat where President Obama enjoyed his half-smoke. The hospitality and warmth that each and every employee showed is something special that makes Ben’s a one of a kind DC establishment.
Location: 1213 U Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20009
Hours of Operation: Monday-Thursday 6am to 2am, Friday 6am to 4am, Saturday 7am to 4am, Sunday 11am to 12am