Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ben's

Ben's Chili Bowl: A Washington Institution for 50 Years!

In August 1958, Ben and Virginia Ali opened one of D.C.'s newest restaurants at 1213 U Street NW--Ben's Chili Bowl. For almost 50 years, Ben's has been an anchor on U Street in good times and bad. When they opened, the national business failure rate was nearly 56%. Ben's has been an icon through the good years when U Street was known as "Black Broadway" and artists like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole were playing clubs in the neighborhood and could be seen hanging at "The Bowl."

The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 brought riot and devastation to the neighborhood, but Ben's stayed open providing food and shelter to those who were trying to restore order to the neighborhood. Decline came to the area after the riots, but Ben's stayed open. In the 1970s and 80s, the U Street area was plagued by open-air heroin markets with dealers and junkies coming and going. Still, Ben's stayed open.

In the late 80s, when Metro put in a Green Line station across the street, most of the businesses closed during construction, but Ben's stayed open providing a place for workers to grab a bite. Now the U Street Corridor and the Shaw neighborhood are experiencing revitalization and gentrification and Ben's remains a constant presence on the street. Fancy restaurants open and close like political deals come and go in this city, but one locale remains stalwart and ever present: Ben's Chili Bowl.

If you're in the city, drop in. You never know who you might see when you do. Bill Cosby is a frequent diner when he's in town. And on a quiet day, you might be lucky enough to meet Ben's matriarch, Virginia. She's a lovely lady who bakes the cakes and always has a warm word for those who venture in for the best half smoke and chili cheese dog in the world!

Photo copyright: D.C. Confidential, 2/08

11 comments:

Lara said...

a wonderful story about how good things do not get washed away by time and politics!

Isadora said...

:) I don't suppose you would be willing to go to Bob & Edith's on Columbia Pike one of these days. I remember Ben's but it was Bob & Edith's that I stood in line at on week-ends with a newspaper under my arm along with the other patrons - waiting for our table for breakfast.

Lisa Sarsfield said...

Great pic and super story. I just love a over-came-the-odds and won story. Sounds like the business has had good leadership and is a fantastic physical heritage. I hope it stays open for many, many more years.

D.C. Confidential said...

Lara: I love Ben's Chili Bowl for exactly that reason!


Isadora: Welcome! I've never heard of Bob & Edith's, but yes, I'd be willing to go over to Columbia Pike and give them a try. Really good food is worth waiting in line. I'll look it up today. How do you like Budapest? I use to live in Vienna and loved it!


Lisa: I hope Ben's is open for many, many more years, too! Especially given how heart un-healthy their food is! People still flocks to it in droves, though. The day I was there, the line was almost out the door and it's that way every day at all hours!

nwdc said...

Bob and Edith's is no Bens, but it's still amazing and worth the trip over the Potomac. There is no better greasy spoon diner and the breakfast is outstanding. That's it, I'm going there this weekend.

Fénix - Bostonscapes said...

Yum, I'd like to try one of those (half smoke?) chili cheese dogs!

D.C. Confidential said...

NWDC: I'm thinking next weekend is going to feature a trip to the States for breakfast...

Fenix: A half-smoke is a kind of sausage. I'm not sure what's in it or how it got its name, but it sure is yummy!

Bobbie said...

I love that this small business beat the odds. We do talk the talk about healthy foods, but slip up often for a bowl of chili or order of fries, don't we? At least often enough to keep Ben's in business anyway :)

D.C. Confidential said...

Bobbie: I love Ben's for that reason, too: it beat the odds and is still thriving. As for the chili dog: it was good, but boy did it bite me in the butt later on! Still, no regrets.

Dusty Lens said...

This street and Ben certainly have seen a lot of history, both good and bad. I'm sure the food is outstanding!

D.C. Confidential said...

DL: This area has so much vibrant history, I often worry that gentrification will obliterate it. I think community activists are doing their best to ensure its historical significance isn't lost, but it's become a very pricey neighborhood to live in, which means a lot of folks who've lived there for decades have sold and moved out and yuppie/gen-X types are moving in.

As for the food at Ben's, not heart healthy, but awfully, awfully tasty!