Ben’s Chili Bowl

Review by: Jane & Michael Stern

Ben’s is a landmark, a tourist attraction, and a place former President Obama was known to go when Michelle wasn’t looking. We hold none of that against what is, in fact, a terrific chili-dog parlor in the nation’s capital.

When you stroll in, you will see a griddle on the right, lined up with hot dogs and half-smoke sausages, sizzling hot and ready to be bunned, dressed, and topped with chili. We recommend both the regular chili dog and the chili smoke, the latter made with the half-smoke sausage that is unique to the area around DC. It is a taut-skinned smoky link bigger than most hot dogs, firm-fleshed with an unbelievably luscious character. It is especially good blanketed with Ben’s chili, which is thick, peppery, full-flavored and positively addictive. The whole package – sausage, mustard and onions, and a heap of chili all piled into a tender bun – is extremely unwieldy, impossible to eat without lots of spillage; but that’s ok. Dripping and licking is part of the dining experience.

The regular hot dog has plenty of character too. No bland tube steak here; it is hot and spicy and a fine balance for the chili. As for dessert, there are fine cakes, served in thick layered slices with plenty of frosting. We love the sweet potato cake, which is moist and spicy.

As for Ben’s history, there’s a whole fact sheet on the counter to take and read (or the historical information is available at Ben’s web site). The basic story is that U Street was once known as Black Broadway for all the musical talent that used to perform in clubs along the way. Since its founding in 1958, Ben’s has survived the neighborhood’s ups and downs, and in 2001, its founders, Ben and Virginia Ali, were inducted into the Washington, D.C., Hall of Fame. (Mr. Ali passed away in October, 2009.)

Directions & Hours

  • Monday: 11:00 AM – 9:00 PM
  • Tuesday: 11:00 AM – 9:00 PM
  • Wednesday: 11:00 AM – 9:00 PM
  • Thursday: 11:00 AM – 11:00 PM
  • Friday: 11:00 AM – 1:00 AM
  • Saturday: 11:00 AM – 1:00 AM
  • Sunday: 11:00 AM – 10:00 PM

What To Eat

Chili Dog

DISH
Chili Smoke

DISH
Half-Smoke

DISH
Sweet Potato Pie

DISH
Chili Cheese Fries

DISH
French Fries

DISH
Strawberry Cake

DISH

Ben’s Chili Bowl Recipes

Discuss

What do you think of Ben’s Chili Bowl?

2 Responses to “Ben’s Chili Bowl”

David Dawson

February 2nd, 2011

I’ve lived within a mile of Ben’s for almost 20 years and am still bewildered at the attention that the food at this place gets. I get that it’s a historical place and I do love that as well but I’ve never had anything that’s better than agreeable. Fries are, well, fine.

The most recent visits were to eat breakfast with a group of friends. We chose Ben’s for its proximity to the metro, because it happens to be a convenient place to meet. I’d like it a lot more if it were clean, had some signature dishes besides the mediocre dogs and chili… maybe some locally made pies and cakes. There are many, many things to showcase but Ben’s misses every chance. (The Florida Ave Grill, also given a great review by Michael Stern, is just two blocks away. Frankly, that’s not something to rave about either. Very similar ambiance to Ben’s.)

A note about the service which is very odd: you are likely to be waited upon by the same person who cooks your food and also acts as the cashier. Not a problem in my book but it does make the organization seem rather clunky. They don’t go into a kitchen, mind you, it’s all open-air as a diner.

I get that it’s historical, especially the fact that it’s one of a few places on U Street, along with Lee’s Flowers, that survived the 1968 riots. You will see the mayor and celebs there. I’m enthusiastic that U Street has come back. Anyone would be glad that Ben’s, Bohemian Caverns, the Lincoln Theater, etc., are still there from a golden era in DC that still has significance today. But the food at Ben’s? It’s fast, it’s open for extended hours. But meh. Meh. Mediocre.

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Cilla Reesman

January 28th, 2005

The existing review is great and accurate as far as it goes. But, you missed the fact that Ben’s also makes the best French fries for hundreds of miles around. Ask them to do them a bit crisp and you will be in fry heaven. Heaps of fries will arrive in a red plastic “boat”. Try some Old Bay Seasoning (a regional concoction used when boiling crabs) on them! They are golden and crunchy on the outside and moist inside. If you like your iced tea Southern Style, brewed with sugary syrup, Ben’s version is a classic and the only type of iced tea available.

Although Ben Ali is retired, “Mrs. Ben” is in the shop nearly everyday. You will recognize her from the many family pictures on the walls. She is a fount of historical information on the area, and has made some of that history personally, so ask her to join your table and you are in for a real treat.

Finally, there is a supurb neighborhood walking tour boooklet that is usually available at Ben’s. If they are out of it they can usually tell you where to find one nearby. As the neighborhood was once home to many jazz artists and clubs and also is near a very moving Civil War Memorial, you will be amply rewarded for an after lunch stroll.

The whole area is undergoing a glorious revival, but Ben’s has stayed the course through think and thin. EVERYONE goes to Ben’s and is treated like family.

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