1213 U St. NW
HOURS: Mon.-Thurs. 6 a.m.-10:45 p.m., Fri. 6 a.m.-4 a.m.,
Sat. 7 a.m.-4 a.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
COST: Most entrées less than $10
The sign on the fridge behind the register reads: “The only people who eat free at Ben’s are the Obamas and Bill Cosby. Everyone else pays.”
At Ben’s Chili Bowl, this is just plain good business sense. With the endless stream of city politicians, government VIPs, and celebrities that line up for a half-smoke at this DC institution, Ben’s has to protect its bottom line.
Ben’s was founded by DC residents Ben and Virginia Ali in 1958 at its present location in the then-hopping neighborhood known as “Black Broadway,” a corridor of jazz clubs, restaurants, and nightspots where luminaries like Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington hung out.
This all changed in 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and the businesses along U Street and much of the city were torched during days-long riots. Ben’s managed to stay open, serving the firefighters, activists, and police officers working to save the city.
For the next 20 years, Ben’s saw the neighborhood struggle with poverty, drugs, and a paralyzed city structure. It became a place where few would venture. Enter Bill Cosby in 1985. Ben’s had been a personal favorite since he had courted his wife here, and he held a press conference at Ben’s to announce that his show was the top TV sitcom in the country.
Things began looking up, even as construction of the Metro line ripped up the streets and changed the surrounding neighborhood. Today, Ben’s is not just a great place to grab lunch or a late-night snack, it is a symbol of the spirit of African American entrepreneurship and of the human character in general.
Sure, this is a lofty assignation for a mere restaurant, but Ben’s deserves this high praise as well as the countless awards it has received over the years.
Regarding the food, Ben’s seriously does have the best chili-cheese fries and half-smokes—chunky, spicy sausages—in town. Ben’s has long lines and is cash-only, so come prepared. But with the friendly service, hip-hop beat, messy meals, social line-standers, and vintage 1950s decor, you’ll find it worth the wait.