Pal Alex—whom I visited last weekend in Washington—was aghast when he discovered I had not only never been to Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street, but actually never heard of the landmark hot dog and chili tavern.
In my defense, when I lived in D.C., from 1984 to 1995, it was the heyday of Mayor Marion Barry, who was too consumed with prostitutes and toots up his nose than taking care of the city. That gang of mine in my 20s hung out in a few select safe havens, while I, as a burgeoning gay, knew Dupont Circle intimately. Despite the fact that U Street is in Northwest, back then it simply wasn’t an area frequented by skinny white boys.
All the same, Ben’s holds an astonishing place in Washington’s historic pantheon. CityStream.com offers that the restaurant endured the 1968 riots, a nabe overrun with drug dealers, 3-1/2 years with no passable street, all while still being frequented by some of the world’s most famous celebrities.
“Ben’s Chili Bowl is one of D.C.’s most legendary establishments, revered not only for its famous half smoke but for the way it has managed to operate as a no-frills, family-run neighborhood eatery since 1958,” the webbie reports. Back then, Ben Ali and his wife Virginia spent $5,000 to open the Chili Bowl at 1213 U St. NW, an area that known at the time as “Black Broadway.”
Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington and other musicians were regulars after playing in the neighborhood. In more modern times, Bill Cosby became a regular, visiting every time he passed through D.C., as well as Bono, Ellen Degeneres, Usher—and President Barack Obama, who, unlike his predecessor George Bush, actually spends time in Washington and soaks up local culture.
On Saturday, with 90 minutes to kill before I hopped the bus back to New York, Alex, Kristine and I soaked in the magic of Ben’s. I had a loaded chili smoke, while Kristine had cheese fries. Two words: fucking amazing. The place was absolutely packed, remarkably efficient, fun, quaint and the food… enough of a reason to return to Washington, in itself. This was absolutely a highlight of my entire three days in D.C. *