Kelly the Culinarian: Food find: Ben's Chili Bowl

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Food find: Ben's Chili Bowl

NOTE: Please vote for my photo entries, No. 1 and 2, on

There are some things you just have to do when visiting Washington: Check out the White House, ride the Metro, see the Wall, eat at Ben's Chili Bowl.

Hey, I don't make the rules here, I just follow.

Ben's Chili Bowl is an institution in DC that has been in the heart of the U Street Corridor since 1958. As the diner boasts, it has been black owned and operated since then. I was once told that before there was Motown, there was U Street. At the time when the eatery opened, U Street was in its hayday and was the heart of Black Broadway. It casually hosted legends such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory, Martin Luther King Jr., or Bill Cosby at its lunch counter and served up chili on everything you can imagine, including burgers, fries and hotdogs.

Times changed and Ben's weather the storm when other businesses failed in the sliding neighborhood during the '70s and '80s. Now the neighborhood is as bustling as any and has a Rite Aid and Starbucks. If that's not the picture of mainstream suburbia, I don't know what is.

Through the years, Ben's hasn't changed. I stopped in last night on my way home -- the restauarant is right across the street from the 13th and U Street exit of the U Street Metro Station. I got some chili cheese fries and a diet Coke at the lunch counter. Music played, the staff sang along and I watched my dinner being made. The staff is friendly and entertaining. While refilling my drink, my waiter told me that not only does he sing, dance, cook and serve food, but he reads minds Monday through Friday. Now that deserves a healthy tip.

The portion of fries was huge and I barely made it through half. The toppings were generous and the chili was in fact something to write home about. It was smokey and spicy, but not overwhelming. It has a nice texture and color and was quite filling.

Also, the atmosphere is so cute and authentic. There are little booths for larger parties and a Redskins shrine in the corner. Signs throughout the establishment thank patrons for supporting a local business and memorabilia is available. There's also a sign listing the people who eat for free at Ben's. The only person on the management-approved list is Bill Cosby, who in 1985 came to Ben's to announce the success of his show.

So now that I've crossed this one off my list, what do you think I should take my sister to see this weekend?


People St.Clair said...

This post brought me back to my time in DC and all the fun that was had at Bens Chili Bowl. Great Post. Thanks for the memory too.

Unknown said...

Mmm. Even with my queasy stomach, that looks and sounds delicious!

And I have NO advice on what to take your sister to see.

ZoeyBella said...

That look so good... Mmmmmmmm....

Dagny said...

Antyhing covered in chili is always good.

ZazaHardy said...

i've never been to the states before. would definitely love to visit dc one day! even more now that i've heard of ben's chilli bowl!