Since 1958, Ben's Chili Bowl has been a gathering place and focal point for black Washington. It has witnessed the rise, fall and resurrection of U Street and is probably the only business on this strip that survived both the 1968 riots and the construction phase of the Metro Green Line.
Chili is only one of the reasons people keep coming back year after year. The large neon "Home of the Famous Chili Dog" sign out front hearkens back to another time. So do the red 1950s-style bar stools and Formica counters. Even the music on the jukebox is retro (a mixture of Motown, Stax-Volt, reggae and a few modern soul tunes thrown in). The staff is cheerful and efficient, a rarity in such a high-volume, high-turnover place. Its kitchen is also extremely clean.
Ben's attracts a diverse cross-section of Washingtonians. Lawyers, college kids from nearby Howard, folks en route to a performance at the Lincoln Theater, musicians, you name it. Bill Cosby has been coming here for so long that he's even got a chili dog named after him. No special service for stars, however. Once at the counter, everyone is treated equally.
For a look at how the District was in the '50s, check out Ben's Chili Bowl on a busy night. The place has an energy all its own. U Street has come back and Ben's is right there where it's always been. The chili's pretty good, too.
-- Neal Becton