Ben's Chili Bowl, founded in 1958 by a Trinidadian immigrant in a building that was home to Washington's first silent movie house (built in1911), is a diner famous for its Chili, half-smokes (hot dogs), and milkshakes, among other things. Ben's over the years has created quite a reputation in the area and has further served a special historical role. In its early days, it served performers like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Nat King Cole and thrived; however, as racial tension increased and as the Washington Riots, which took place in front of Ben's and along U street, destroyed the area, the local economy took a quick dive and were forced to go under. During the riots, local activists and officials gave special protection to Ben's to allow them to stay open past curfews and to keep the area safe, in effort to offer locals one last reprieve from the daily violence and turmoil plaguing the area. It is reported that the restaurant simultaneously fed both the police officers and firemen working to impose order on the neighborhood alongside African American protesters. As the neighborhood degraded over the next several decades, Ben's remained one of the only reputable businesses of operation in the area, often working with local officials to revitalize the area. With such a good reputation not only for its food but also for its sociopolitical impact, Ben's has been a frequented spot by many famous people. Most famously, Bill Cosby has been going to Ben's for nearly 50 years, and has earned a special place on their menu. Further, political leaders including Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, mayors, and a long list of congressman have frequented the place. Other celebrities include Bono, Ludacris, Chris Rock, etc. etc.
(The seal is in front of where Obama sat while eating his chili-dog)
If for nothing else, I recommend making the journey to the chili bowl to experience a piece of local history. The chairs and tables are originals that have been at the restaurant for over 50 years. The dining atmosphere and energy from the employees gives it an extremely attractive vibe.
More importantly, however, I recommend making the journey to surrender to your most gluttonous desires with a sizzling hot half-smoke dog loaded with onions and smothered in chili. Served with potato chips and a recommended bed of fries, this meal strikes a harmonious note with a growling stomach aching for delicious comfort food. The juicy half-smoke is similar to a "hot dog, but usually larger, spicier, and with more coarsely-ground meat, the sausage is often half-pork and half-beef, smoked, and served with a bevy of herbs, onion, and chili sauce."
I cannot help but compare Ben's to "The Dog of Nashville". As far as flavor is concerned, I have had nothing at The Dog that compares with the half-smoke I had just 22 hours ago. Although The Dog offers specialty dogs with a variety of creative add-ons and combinations (eggs, pork bbq, onions sauteed in tobasco) and is extremely satisfying, the flavor pouring out of the half-smoke and the quality of the chili would have me choosing one over any "barnyard", "coney-island", chili dog or brat anywhere.
Catie and I had a memorable experience at Ben's Chili Bowl and would gladly recommend it to anyone and everyone who is traveling through the DC area.