Updated, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 7
The Ben's Chili Bowl at the corner of H and 10th streets NE has that new car smell. The red retro-vinyl chairs, the Formica tables, the giant stainless-steel griddle, the ketchup-and-mustard-colored interior, everything inside the latest location feels familiar, yet foreign, as if a Hollywood production company had tried to recreate the original Ben's on U Street NW piece by piece.
The shiny new H Street outlet will be the third full-time clone of the iconic Ben's, the historic diner that famously survived the 1968 riots, Metro construction, gentrification and even the dietary mood swings of the American public. It will also be the most historically significant Chili Bowl since the original, far more spiritually aligned with the U Street spot than the spin-offs in Arlington or at Reagan National Airport or those seasonal stands at Nationals Park and FedEx Field.
Located at 1001 H St. NE, the address of the former George's Place clothing store, Ben's Chili Bowl will join a neighborhood that has experienced the same sort of joys and sorrows as those on the U Street corridor. H Street was once a thriving commercial corridor; it declined dramatically after the '68 riots; it has enjoyed (if that's the right word) revitalization and gentrification in the 2000s and beyond, and its businesses have had to suffer through a long, tedious transportation project (the streetcar construction and testing, not another Metro build-out).
"Historically, this is a great fit for us," says co-owner Nizam Ali, son of founders Ben and Virginia Ali. "Just the history of H Street, its place in the city, where it's been, where it's going. It just feels right. It's funny. In the daytime here, it kind of feels like U Street 20 years ago. A lot of character out here on the street."
The newest Ben's is decked out with the same condiment colors, the same vinyl-and-chrome chairs and the same Formica tables as the original. It also sports a timeline mural somewhat similar to the ones at Arlington and Reagan National locations, except this one downplays the role of the disgraced Bill Cosby; his only presence is a photo from the opening of Ben's in Arlington, where he was part of the ribbon-cutting ceremony; there is also a framed photo of Cosby, located below a flat screen TV, in which he stands and points to the sign at the original Ben's on U Street.
"There is a presence of Cosby there," says Vida Ali, daughter-in-law of the founders and spokeswoman for Ben's Chili Bowl. "There is his presence as there is presence of other celebrities." The Ali family declined to say anything more about Cosby at this time.
The new Ben's will include an adjacent bar similar to Ben's Next Door on U Street: This bar, however, will sit above the restaurant on the second floor and will include a rooftop space.
It'll be "different than Ben's Next Door, but it's a full-service bar," says Ali. "Right now, we're calling it Ben's Upstairs. It'll look very different, I think. A different menu." The Ben's teams are still working on bar and food menus for the place, which Ben's hopes to open in two to three months.
Ben's on H Street has been a project long in the works. The Ali family bought the building several years ago and has been developing the space for the past 18 months. The lengthy build-out was due, in part, to the fact the Alis decided to dig out a basement where there previously wasn't one. The subterranean space is now used for prep and walk-in storage. Between the building purchase and its development, Ali figures the final tab exceeds $3 million.
The 84-seat Ben's will have a few new touches to go along with its famous half-smokes and chili-cheese fries. It has a funhouse mirror ("something fun as you're going to the restroom," Ali says). It has a soft-serve ice cream machine to complement Ben's line of milkshakes. The team was still working out the soft-serve menu. "We're not in the soft-serve business, so we got to work that out," the co-owner says. It will have a 30-plus-seat outdoor patio eventually.
One thing it won't have: a jukebox filled with some of the finest soul and funk music ever recorded.
"The interesting thing with the jukebox," says Ali, "is that it's so iconic to U Street, and even on U Street, people really don't put money into it."
Ben's Chili Bowl at 1001 H St. NE. opens 11 a.m. Wednesday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Correction and clarification: The original version of this story stated Ben's Chili Bowl was located in the former George's Place clothing store. It is actually located at the same address; the original building was razed and some of the old bricks were used in the new construction. The timeline mural also features a photo of the opening of the Ben's Chili Bowl in Arlington where Bill Cosby was part of the ribbon cutting. It doesn't feature a stand-alone photo of the disgraced comedian, although his photo is placed elsewhere in the diner.