The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2016 Spring Dining Guide.
For one endless minute, no one at one of the best-known addresses in Washington acknowledges me after I’ve parked on a glittery red stool pushed against a white Formica counter. Waiting for one of several nearby servers to take my order or just say hello gives me time to reacquaint myself with the interior — pressed-tin ceiling, booths against the walls, a jukebox in the rear — that, save for some framed celebrity photos (Jesse Jackson, Anthony Bourdain), would look at home in 1958, the year some newlyweds opened the business on U Street. The counter is untidy; next to me are three red plastic baskets with lunch remnants that no one seems in a hurry to clear.
“Ready to order?” someone finally asks. I request the signature dish to see if I like it any better than at my last rendezvous. A lemonade, more sweet than tart and a ringer for a mix, keeps me company while I wait.
Lunch arrives, and I take a bite of food capable of creating lines outside the place on weekend nights. The bun is soft, white and tasteless. The pork-and-beef sausage is crisp from the griddle, where it appears to have surrendered any juices it may have, long ago, had. The snap I anticipate never happens. Sorriest of all is the thin liquid drape on the meat: a sauce that packs flat cayenne heat and tastes burnt.
The chili half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl is, alas, just as I remember it: awful.
This is no small matter. In a city stacked with monuments, Ben’s, brought to life by Ben and Virginia Ali on “Black Broadway” during the Eisenhower administration, stands out as one of the capital’s most beloved institutions. Over its remarkably long life, the diner has not only survived race riots, drug wars and subway projects, it has helped the community recover from them, too. Gentrification hasn’t touched its character. Politicians consider Ben’s an important pit stop on the campaign trail; tourists and newcomers put it at the top of their must-eat list; students of history and music want to sit on stools that once hosted the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald. And the brand has recently expanded to H Street NE, Arlington, Reagan National Airport and more.
But as much as it pains me to write it, this icon has few clothes, at least when it comes to gustatory pleasures. If this food were anywhere else, the only sound you’d hear would be crickets.
Take the hamburger — please! The crumbly patty would taste of nothing if it weren’t for condiments or cheese. (Grilling the buns would be baby steps toward improving the eating here.) Like the half-smokes, Ben’s bean chili can be shipped “anywhere in the USA!” reads a sign next to the menu on the wall. But I can’t imagine anyone in the 50 states happy to receive in the mail the one-note heat and salt lick of something that tastes like it came from a can. Ben’s also now offers “healthy” choices. They include a sorry tuna fish sandwich that prompts the question: Why would anyone go to a hot dog spot for tuna salad? A slice of screaming-yellow lemon cake seems to be equal parts sugar and artificial flavoring.
Don’t get me started on the exterior mural of a beaming Bill Cosby, his outsized smile now as menacing as a clown in a horror film. Cosby, a decades-long booster of Ben’s (he courted his wife there in the early ’60s), is famously one of only two customers who don’t have to pay to eat. The other is President Obama.
There are ways around the many culinary disappointments at Ben’s. One is to make a meal of sides; creamy coleslaw and potato salad crisped with celery are reliable. Another is breakfast, when the service feels sunnier, if not entirely efficient (no one seems to multitask here), and entertainment comes by way of a short-order cook who softly sings gospel in rhythm with his grill work. Go for fluffy hot cakes with butter-brushed surfaces and lacy edges. Surprise yourself by finishing the heaping helping of crusty home fries riding shotgun with an order of eggs cooked the way you like them — and improved with a dash or two of hot sauce.
Breakfast turns out to be the favorite time of day for Nizam Ali, too, one of six family members who watches over his parents’ legacy. “You get a lot of D.C. regulars,” says the youngest of three sons. “It’s less hectic.” And where else, he asks, can you eat scrapple or salmon cakes to a soundtrack of Earth, Wind & Fire, or more recently, Prince?
Perhaps the best strategy for a satisfying visit to Ben’s is to simply accept the fact that you’re there for something — nostalgia, perhaps — that’s more powerful than anything on the plate.
Amazingly, matriarch Virginia Ali, 82, still makes appearances at least four days a week. Indeed, to see her or a member of her tribe touching a table here, thanking you there — bringing a city together — is to appreciate Ben’s as integral to the community’s fabric. That’s certainly nothing to scoff at. But neither is the appeal of a really good half-smoke, which you’ll have to find elsewhere.
Ben’s Chili Bowl. 1213 U St. NW. 202-667-0909. benschilibowl.com.
Open : Breakfast Monday through Saturday, lunch and dinner daily.
Prices : Breakfast entrees $3 to $9, lunch and dinner entrees $4 to $10 .
Sound check: 79 decibels.