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When Jerome Grant first got his driver’s license in 1998 as a teenager in Prince George’s County, Maryland, he decided to use his newfound freedom to make the 30-minute trip into Washington, D.C. “I snuck out,” he says. “I had a lot of friends that went into the city, and they would talk about Ben’s Chili Bowl, so I wanted to go.” Grant didn’t know much about the restaurant beyond the fact that they served hot dogs (which he loved) and that it was open late at night (until 4 a.m. on weekends), but even that was enough to risk drawing the ire of his parents. Still, he went and ordered the signature dish—a half-smoke sausage, made of coarsely ground pork and beef, which retains a hefty amount of char and doesn’t burst when it’s cooked, giving it a juicy snap.
Grant loved the food, but he also loved the atmosphere at Ben’s and just outside it. “U Street back in those days was the epicenter of black culture,” he says. And as he got older and started to venture into D.C. for its nightlife with his friends, Ben’s became a go-to. “We went all the time on Friday or Saturday night before or after going out,” Grant says. “The vibe of seeing old folks, black folks, young folks, white folks. . . . It just seemed like it was home for us.”
Today, Grant is the chef of Sweet Home Café, the cafeteria-style restaurant inside D.C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, where the spring and summer menus feature a half-smoke modeled after the dish he first enjoyed at Ben’s Chili Bowl as a teenager. (Like Ben’s, his version is griddled, but can be customized with toppings like melted cheese, onions, and mustard.) “I felt like, ‘How dare we not pay homage to Ben’s?’” Grant says. “We have to showcase our city on our menu.” This is because Ben’s, as most anyone will tell you, is D.C.
I grew up in Maryland, and counted Washington, D.C. as the closest major city. As a child, I viewed it as a sprawling metropolis of streets named after letters and states, with frequent protests and iconic national monuments. Even before I ever went to Ben’s, I remember hearing about it; I remember the way adults in my life spoke of the restaurant, with a mix of reverence and appreciation, like they were discussing dining in the living room of a lifelong friend instead of a business. As I got older, I learned why it was held so dearly to those around me: the original location has been open since 1958 in a historically black section of the city, serving comfort food and welcoming everyone. Even as the neighborhood around it has changed, and changed again, Ben’s has been a constant.
Ben’s also was—and is—a place where you could always see black faces behind the counter, at the tables eating, and on the walls in photographs. There’s Cornel West, Denzel Washington, and Tavis Smiley. There’s Barack Obama, who visited Ben’s before his inauguration in 2009. There are pictures of workers behind the counter, and black-and-white snapshots of Ben Ali, the late founder and namesake of the restaurant, who passed away in 2009. Visit, and it’s clear that this is a space where black people are not just welcome, but celebrated. Though there may be new locations—in Arlington, Virginia, the trendy H Street corridor in D.C., satellite outposts at FedEx Field and Nationals Stadium—for so many, the original location is hallowed ground.
Ben and Virginia Ali opened Ben’s Chili Bowl on August 22, 1958, selling hot dogs, burgers, sausages, potato chips, and Ben’s homemade chili, a mixture of ground beef thin enough to be poured on any item on the menu. Ben, who immigrated from Trinidad to the United States in 1945, brought with him a palate used to intense flavors, and packed the chili with a considerable amount of spiciness, which became one of the restaurant’s hallmarks. Today, you’ll find the same glass windows looking over the griddle, and the same small tables and chairs along the wall that were here in 1958. Ben’s has changed, but only sort of—fitting for a restaurant that has hosted so many iterations of D.C. residents.
Back when the restaurant opened, U Street was known as Black Broadway, a dazzling stretch of theaters, jazz clubs, and restaurants all catering to a growing black community with disposable income, many of whom came to the area to attend nearby Howard University. Ben’s proximity to Lincoln Theater, a venue for top black performers of the time, made it the perfect pre- and post-restaurant for theatergoers, says Dr. Bernard Demczuk, the restaurant’s official historian. Open for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late into the night, it was an all-day dining option. Back then, a chili dog cost 15 cents, and a half-smoke would run you a quarter.
Ten years into business, Ben’s position as a pre- and post-entertainment dining option was recast: On the evening of April 4, 1968, it became a sanctuary in times of turmoil, when someone ran into the restaurant and shouted that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. “I remember that day so well,” Virginia says. “We were all in tears about it. Our peaceful leader had been taken from us so violently.” For many, that great sadness became frustration, and that frustration then anger. Outside of the restaurant, people expressed their grief by burning down many of the buildings along U Street.
Because of the unrest, the city established a curfew for residents in the days following the assassination. Ben’s Chili Bowl was the only place allowed to stay open that evening and in the following weeks, and it did, Virginia says: for neighbors, for organizers, for officers. All were welcome. It was a place of refuge and rest after an event that would change the neighborhood forever.
In the years that followed, many of the businesses that surrounded Ben’s fled the area in search of greener pastures. “That time afterwards was hell,” says Demczuk. “People were killed, houses were gone.” The decades ahead brought violence and a drug epidemic to the area, but Ben’s Chili Bowl held on. “We went down to one employee, and Ben found work to do outside of the restaurant,” says Virginia. But the restaurant, as it always did, stayed open.
On a recent weekday at Ben’s on U Street, a line wrapped around inside by the registers while Slave’s “Watching You” bass line bumped through the room before fading out as the unmistakable trumpets introducing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” came through the speakers. Workers behind the counter sang along as they prepared orders, and the hiss of the griddle—lined with plump sausages receiving a heavy char—was audible.
While Ben’s is a tourist destination during the day, it’s a rowdy, packed party at night. On the weekends after the bars close, the yellow and red awning beams. Joining the queue and placing your order is a contact sport: It quickly becomes a mash of bodies angling to see what’s on the grill while trying to not lose a place in the line that snakes through the small dining room or sometimes out the door.
The last time I visited, Virginia wove through the crowd, greeting guests and thanking them for coming in, a task she still manages on most days, even at 85 years old. “I’m energized when I walk in that door,” she says. Each of her three children and two daughters-in-law work in the business in some capacity, and all of her sons chose jobs in the restaurant after going to college. “Isn’t that cool?” she asks me, a smile on her face.
In 2018, the restaurant celebrated its 60th anniversary with a block party and ceremony declaring August 22, 2018, Ben’s Chili Bowl Day. The city also unveiled a placard directly next to the building, naming the road Ben Ali Way in memory of the founder. “What was so fascinating and so rewarding to see was the lines and people coming,” Virginia says. “It was then that I was like, ‘Wow, this place means something to the community.’ And I was overwhelmed with joy.”
In a city with shifting demographics, Ben’s is a beacon—a reminder that the district’s history is intertwined with the history of black people in this country. “What Ben’s is is a real symbol of freedom,” says Demczuk. “Every black community has a special place. Ours in D.C. is Ben’s Chili Bowl.”
Note: Every Saturday, Demczuk hosts a two-hour “open table” at Ben’s, where visitors are invited to sit and learn about the history of the restaurant and the neighborhood.