“It was the summer of 1958. Eisenhower was president. Federal troops were ordered into Little Rock, Arkansas to aid in the integration of public schools. Explorer I was launched, as was NASA. The first-ever Grammy Awards were given, and Ella Fitzgerald won two of them,” reads the first paragraph of Ben’s Chili Bowl History page.
This U street landmark in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington D.C. is a cultural, community, and culinary staple to the city. Known as the “must-go” place to eat when in Washington, the tiny eatery (which hasn’t changed in appearance, decor, or secret chili menu) has been featured by all major media outlets from CNN and Oprah, to The New York Times and the Food Network.
What can one expect from this half-century establishment? A full homage to the American classics! No one does it better than Ben’s Chili Bowl, especially if you are looking for a classic chili dog, Washington-native half-smokes, and creamy milkshakes.
Stepping inside Ben’s Chili Bowl is like stepping back into time as the building that houses the eatery is historic as well. Built in 1910, it was first home to a silent-movie theater named Minnehaha Theater, after which it became a pool hall. Then on August 22, 1958, magic happened when the doors to Ben’s Chili Bowl opened for the first time! Little did owners Ben Ali and wife Virginia know that their place would become an integral part of the community and history.
It really survived its true test when the neighborhood was in turmoil during the Washington D.C. riots of 1968. Police and protestors alike still frequented the establishment, but it nearly destroyed business. By the mid-1970s, the area, still in shambles and rampant crime prevailing, didn’t prevent the steady trickle of regulars from visiting Ben’s. The real boost came when Bill Cosby decided to hold a national press conference at Ben’s Chili Bowl to celebrate his number one rated The Cosby Show in 1986. Today, you can order Bill Cosby’s Original Chili Half-Smoke, because of that. Known as one of their signature dishes, it is a 1/4lb. half pork and beef smoked sausage on a warm steamed bun and topped with mustard, onions and spicy homemade chili sauce.
“We always knew we were part of history. We had been open so long, and through so many events,” said Kamal Ali, one of the owner’s sons. “But after Bill Cosby had a press conference in 1986 at Ben’s, ever since then it became a landmark place.”
After that period it truly did start transforming into a landmark. Ben and Virginia Ali were eventually presented with the key to the city by Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2008, and what must have been one of the greatest moments was when Barack Obama visited and ordered himself a chili dog just 10 days shy of his presidential inauguration in January, 2009.
Ben’s Chili Bowl has been fortunate to not only hold its own during ups and downs, but also to expand. They have opened up Ben’s Next Door (literally next door), but don’t expect the same juicy half-smokes or tasty chili (which no one knows the secret to), since the menu is completely different. The decor also differs to that of being more modern with a 53-ft bar and nine TVs.
If you are interested in the old classic or the new place next door, you won’t be disappointed either way. Ben’s Chili Bowl is conveniently located at 1213 U Street NW, Washington D.C. with hours ranging from 6 a.m. openings on weekdays, to closing at 4 a.m. during the weekends.