Ben’s Chili Bowl is the most iconic of all restaurants in Washington DC. If you have not been there, you have not eaten in DC. Located in the U-Steet corridor, Ben’s has been a fixture of the neighborhood since the 1950s. The have other locations — on H Street, at the Nationals Ball Park, and even at the airport — but the original is the best.
Ben’s Chili Bowl was started by Virginia Ali and her husband Ben in 1958, when she was just 24 years old.
During the mid-20th century, U Street was the center of Black culture in DC, so much so that it was given the nickname “Black Broadway”. Dozens of Jazz clubs and two renowned theaters, the Lincoln and now historic Howard Theatre, made it the heart of Black entertainment. Duke Ellington, one of the world’s most pivotal Jazz musicians, was born there. Other famous Jazz singers, including Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, also performed there. Ben’s has been a pillar of the community and the witness to many historic events. It provided food to demonstrators during Martin Luthor King’s March on Washington. More recently, protesters of the George Floyd killing gathered at the corner right next to Ben’s. During the riots of 1968 it was the only place allowed to remain open during the curfew, serving food to both protesters and police. U Street suffered a decline after those riots, but Ben’s Chili Bowl survived and eventually prospered. The area is now an upscale neighborhood and has a wide array of restaurants and shops.
Ben’s is burgers and dogs place. They have salads but I have never gotten one. I normally get the chili half smoke with a side of chili cheese fries. The half smoke is a smoked sausage served in a hot dog bun, topped with Ben’s home-made chili. The fries are similar, but with cheese added on top. This is comfort food at it’s finest.
Ben’s also has items such as shakes and desserts; pictured here is a cherry shake and a chocolate cake. The shakes are pretty good. I normally don’t get a dessert, so don’t take this as a definitive recommendation, but the chocolate cake I recently had was fairly average. It’s not a dish one would go out of their way for.
But you don’t go to Ben’s Chili Bowl just for the food. You go there for the experience. The walls are copiously decorated with photos from there years of operation, including many famous celebrities. And outside, you will often find street musicians playing and dancing. Going there gives one a taste of DC culture.
If you are ever in DC I highly recommend checking Ben’s Chili Bowl out. And if you live in the area and haven’t been, get there as soon as possible. In these COVID times, even an institution like Ben’s is threatened. It survived riots in the 60s, metro construction in the 80s, and gentrification in the 2010s. But it almost closed shop during the COVID crisis, but was saved by a PPP loan. Ben’s needs your support. It would be a shame to lose this cornerstone of the community,