Ben’s Chili Bowl, Washington
For review No. 5, it’s time to go back to my roots, and that means the Washington DC metro area. It’s almost embarrassing to admit this, but I didn’t make a pilgrimage to Ben’s Chili Bowl until I was 23, a full six years after I left Virginia to move on to the next stage of my life, despite living a little over an hour from Washington for 17 years.
It was only after hearing about its greatness from fellow Virginian Will Palaszczuk that I decided that Ben’s was something I had to experience for myself. When Adam Richman visited in season 2 and the Chowdown Countdown put it on the list, it moved to an absolute must. That’s right, Ben’s is the first restaurant on this blog to have shown up on the Chowdown Countdown, where it was ranked No. 28.
Boy, is it well-deserved. Ben’s claim to fame is the chili half-smoke, a Washington legend made so by Ben’s famous chili. The chili is made with several secret spices from the mind of Ben Ali, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago and immigrated to the United States, setting up shop in 1958.
While Ben’s chili is excellent plain, having just the right amount of meat, beans and spices, it really shines when paired with the half-smoke, which is a half-beef, half-pork sausage smoked and cooked to perfection. Mustard and onions are added before the chili is smothered on the sausage and bun for one excellent meal. Add a shake or some homemade sweet tea and everything is perfect.
Sides are unmemorable, just your common potato chips. But when you have the chili half-smoke, you don’t need much else, as Bill Cosby can attest to. In the 1980’s, Cosby held his press conference for the Cosby Show at Ben’s, having been a regular customer since the restaurant opened in 1958. Cosby and the Obama family, also frequent visitors, always eat free at Ben’s in reward for their visible loyalty.
As its fame grew, Ben’s became the spot for politicians visiting the nation’s capital. Leaders from as far away as Africa and Europe have visited, and it’s become as much a requirement for a DC politician to visit Ben’s as it is for a Philadelphia politician to get a cheesesteak. Ben’s is such an icon in DC that during the 1968 riots, residents asked Ben’s to keep its doors open at its location on U Street.
Truly, a Washington landmark.
Time to go: Almost any time. From Monday through Thursday, Ben’s is open from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. On Friday and Saturday, Ben’s shuts its doors at 4 a.m. Only on Sunday does Ben’s actually close before midnight, and they close at 11 p.m. Better, Ben’s serves its chili and lunch/dinner menu at all times it’s open.
Wait during my visit: Not long. Ben’s lines can get crowded and table space is an issue as the restaurant is very small, but I was fortunate.
Location: Since 1958, Ben’s has been at 1213 U Street in Northwest DC.
Cost: You can get in and out of Ben’s for under $10.
Parking: Do you feel lucky? Ben’s does actually have parking behind the restaurant on Ben Ali Way, but there are a mere 10 spaces available. If the restaurant is packed, you’re not going to find a space, leaving you to try your luck in DC. That’s not an experience I want to try.
So how do you get to Ben’s? Simple: Hop on the DC Metro and find your way to the Green Line. Ben’s is right across the street from the U Street/Cardozo station, making for an easy run across without the worry of parking. A much better choice.
Website: Ben’s Chili Bowl
Signature items: Chili half-smoke