Ben's Chili Bowl
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Ben’s Chili Bowl to the people of Washington, DC.
Ben Ali, a Trinidadian immigrant and dentistry graduate of Howard University, bought 1213 U Street with his fiance, Virginia, in 1958. The building was originally DC’s first silent movie house, the Minnehaha. The Minnehaha, whose arched windows can still be seen under the Ben’s sign, was a nickelodeon-- an early, simple type of cinema that flourished from 1905 to 1915. Nickelodeons, named for the price of admission combined with the Greek word, odeon, for enclosed theatre, fell out of favor as movies got longer and lavish movie houses became popular. The Minnehaha was built in 1911, and remains the only former nickelodeon still standing in DC.
Ben and Virginia married seven weeks after opening the restaurants, and they ran it together until Ben’s death in 2009. Virginia can still be seen, checking up on staff and posing for pictures with visitors.
Ben’s Chili Bowl was surrounded by the clubs and theatres that made up “Black Broadway”, where greats such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Nat King Cole played. The U Street Corridor was hit hard by the 1968 DC Riots, which broke out in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. But Ben’s was untouched; locals stood guard outside to protect their neighborhood restaurant.
In the 70s, U Street was known for its open-air drug markets. Ben’s Chili Bowl stopped selling cakes and pies, since they attracted addicts, and they reduced their staff to one person. They were able to survive because of the community’s support in a time when people were afraid to go to the neighborhood.
In 1986, Ben’s was put on the map when Bill Cosby, who took his wife there on dates, gave a press conference in front of the restaurant. During the late-80s, during Green Line construction on U Street, Ben’s stayed open, with signs up and down the street reminding customers that they were still serving half smokes. Most recently, Ben’s has survived gentrification, as businesses up and down the U Street Corridor have been priced out and been replaced.
Ben’s Chili Bowl has survived, thrived, and expanded, with locations on H Street, at Reagan National Airport, and National Stadium.
Menu sampling: Ben’s is all about the chili dog: a hot dog with their famous chili on it. They also have burgers and rice bowls, but just get the chili dog-- trust me. I’m going to say something crazy here… I actually prefer the veggie chili. Veggie chili on a beef hot dog with a side of veggie chili cheese fries and a chocolate shake.