Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Ben's Chili Bowl a living landmark

Half Smoke - All the Way

Most landmarks in DC do not offer much more than long lines, large crowds, tired frustrated and hungry tourists and a boring history lesson. If you've seen all the monuments and museums head up to Ben's Chili Bowl, a local landmark/chili stand located on U Street that off the radar of most tourist (and Japanese tour buses). Ben's is a must for any DC resident, civil rights history buff or anyone who likes chili cheese fries.The story of Ben's Chili Bowl mirrors the history of DC over the past 50 years and offers an interesting glimpse into DC as it once was (before there was an au bon pain, cosi or potbellies on every corner).

A brief history of Ben's Chili Bowl

Ben's Chili Bowl was founded on August 22, 1958 at a time when DC was segregated by Ben Ali, a Trinidadian-born immigrant and his fiancee Virginia, a DMV local. Back in those days, U Street was known as 'Black Broadway' and many jazz like as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Nat King Cole would frequent the restaurant when they performed at U Street jazz clubs. During the race riots that followed the assassination of MLK, Ben's was given special permission to stay open past the mandatory curfew to feed both activists and the police. Ben's Chili Bowl was one of the few U Street establishments that survived the economic downturn as people fled the area to escape the influx of hardcore drugs during the 70's and 80's. The gentrification that eventually came in the 90's restored Ben's to its former glory.

Russel Crowe in State of Play

Today Ben's Chili bowl is a thriving living landmark that usually has a line winding out the door during meal times and late nites. Any politician looking to campaign in DC stops by for a photo op and a side of chili. Ben's been featured on pretty much every food/travel tv show and has a role in films such as The Pelican Brief and State of Play. Bill Cosby is perhaps Ben's most loyal/famous coustomer, for years there has been a sign in Ben's Chili Bowl stating that he is the only person who eats for free. Following the lead of our legislative branch, Ben recently added an amendment to include the Obama Family.

Ben's famous half smoke sausages are produced in Baltimore, Maryland by the Manger Packing Corporation. However our DCFoodTour tour guide informed us that Ben's is no longer using the real half smoke but has moved to a more processed half smoke sausage. For those looking for a true Manager half smoke you can find one at Canales Meats in Eastern Market. Ben's Chili Bowl offers a range of food options but most go for chili, sausage, and fries in a variety of combinations. Needless to say the food is good considering the restaurant survived and thrived during the changing landscapes of the U Street area. Ben's also has drinking friendly hours staying open til 2am weekdays and 4am on the weekends.

Chili Cheese Fries

Ben's Chili Bowl on Urbanspoon

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