08 Jan Historic Hot Dogs in Washington D.C.
The famous Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington D.C., sits directly across from the 13th Street entrance of the U Street metro stop along the Green Line. To ensure you won’t miss this historic hot dog joint, bright shining lights encompass the front and a graffiti wall along the side displays two of the restaurants famous patrons, Bill Cosby and President Barack Obama.
Ben’s has been slinging Half-Smokes since 1958 and even stayed open throughout the 1968 riots which devastated the U Street area after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, black activist Stokely Carmichael, asked Ben’s if they would stay open throughout the violence and protests occurring in the area. Ben’s received a permit to stay open past curfew and they served firemen and police as well as black activists and public servants who were working to restore peace and order to the U Street neighborhood. Because many of the businesses in this area had closed due to the riots and disorder nearby, the neighborhood turned rough and housed many drug dealers and even drug markets. During this time Ben’s stopped selling sweets, such as cake and pie, due to the fact that it attracted drug addicts. Side-note: the deserts are back and look pretty tasty. Despite ups and downs in the area, like major construction on the Green Line Metro, Ben’s Chili Bowl persisted and according to The Washington Post, it is “probably the only business on this strip that survived both the 1968 riots and the construction phase of the Metro Green Line”. A pretty impressive feat if I must say so myself.
Rumor has it there are only two people in the world that can score a free meal from Ben’s Chili Bowl: Bill Cosby and President Obama, hence the vibrant graffiti painting on the outside wall. It is also probably one of the very few places you will see people from all walks of life, from hipsters, to suit clad business people, to politicians and families, and it is probably one of the only hot dog joints where you may even see a stretch limo idling out front.
Stepping inside, we found a long line and packed tables. Thankfully the line moved fairly quickly and we were ordering at the counter in no time. You can watch their signature dish, Chili Half-Smokes, cook on the grills while you wait in line and absorb the delicious smell. Chili Half-Smokes are 1/4 pound sausages made up of half pork and half beef and smothered in their signature chili, all resting atop a soft bun. Note: make sure you have cash with you as Ben’s does not accept plastic. There is an ATM on site, but to avoid any additional fees, it’s best to be prepared and come with cash. Due to the lack of an empty table in the front room, I thought we may not have a place to sit, but there are actually quite a few tables all the way to the back of the narrow building. The inside is reminiscent of the 50’s, due to the mostly original decor, and the walls are filled with pictures of celebrity and political patrons. You almost feel as though you are stepping back in time.
If you are looking for a nicer restaurant atmosphere with a full menu and more variety, head over to Ben’s Next Door, which was opened by the same owners, literally next door to Ben’s Chili Bowl. If you still want one of Ben’s famous half-smokes, you can order one from your server and they will have it delivered right to your table from the Chili Bowl.
So, with all that, do their dogs and chili live up to the hype? In our opinion, YES! I am really picky when it comes to hot dogs and it is very hard for me to find one I actually enjoy, but Micah and I both enjoyed our meal immensely. The only thing I would have changed with our meal was the cheese fries we ordered. The plain cheese fries were a little drab and would have been delicious with extra chili, even if it was a little overkill because it was THAT GOOD. Next time we are in D.C., I would make it a point to stop in for a bite to eat. Thankfully D.C. is a great city for walking because you will need it after this meal!