Ben’s Chili Bowl: this Washington DC restaurant is a civil rights landmark

Ben’s Chili Bowl: this Washington DC restaurant is a civil rights landmark

By Laura Rocha

And why you should go, other than to try a half-smoke, DC’s signature dish

Ben’s Chili Bowl has been open for over six decades, at 1213 U St NW Washington, DC. The restaurant, famous for its half-smoke –a hot dog topped with mustard, onion, and Ben’s traditional chili–, has always stood for something bigger than a place with a delicious dish for locals and tourists to enjoy. For the African American community, this has been a place of safety, a sort of haven where people in need have always been taken care of, that keeps its doors open during difficult times and is a landmark of the civil rights movement. 

The restaurant opened on U Street on August 22nd, 1958. It was founded by Ben Ali, who passed in 2009, and his wife Virginia, who remains the owner. In its website, Ben’s Chili Bowl proudly displays a timeline of the milestones that have marked the restaurant’s history.

Photograph-covered walls and living history

From presidents to celebrities, the restaurant became a symbolic spot to visit. The walls of its original location are covered in photographs of these visitors, who smile widely at the camera as they enjoy a delicious local lunch. Over the years, the support Ben’s Chili Bowl has provided for the African American community has become more and more evident, which is why going out of your way to visit the location on U Street, whether you are a busy politician or a famous basketball player, sends out a statement. As put on their website, “DC’s residents have a long history of bouncing back from hard times.  Our Black community is front and center in this story and Ben’s is a perfect case study – a study in our quest of freedom and it’s ongoing re-definition”.

On multiple occasions, the restaurant showed its support to the civil rights movement. For instance, in April of 1968, Ben’s donated food to the Poor People’s Campaign: this movement was organized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. –who did not live to see the movement in the capital– and it was a march that intended to demand the US government to look for solutions to poverty across the country, focusing on housing and employment. 

Earlier that same April, after the assassination of Dr. King, the DC riots took place. Remarkably and bravely, Ben’s remained open during the riots: “Stokely Carmichael obtained special permission to keep Ben’s open after curfew to provide food and shelter for those working to restore order after the riots of 1968”. Thanks to actions like these, Ben’s quickly became a landmark of DC and of the civil rights movement. 

Through the decades, the restaurant has grown to become a must-visit in DC. It has brought people from all over the world. It even was Barack Obama’s choice restaurant ten days before his 2009 inauguration, on January 10th. Beyond its delicious chili, this is a restaurant that has created community, built on the structure of a family-owned business that went from a small restaurant on a corner in U Street to 7 locations, including the one that opened recently at Capital One Arena. 

The best part of the story is that the restaurant is alive and well. Its photograph-covered walls stand firmly on the same address where it originally opened and grabbing a bite there is like stepping into the living history of the civil rights movement. With promises of delicious food and welcoming staff, Ben’s is almost more so a local attraction than a restaurant. 

What to eat if you visit

Since it is a restaurant, after all, if you go out of your way to visit you should try one of their signature dishes. Some of the meals from the menu that are worth highlighting are:

  1. ORIGINAL CHILI HALF-SMOKE: “Experience the chili half-smoke, first made famous by Ben’s in 1958. Grilled and served on a warm steamed bun with mustard, onions and Ben’s spicy homemade chili sauce. Have yours split and grilled on request.”
  2. BEN’S FAMOUS CHILI BURGER: “Served with mayo, lettuce and Ben’s spicy homemade chili sauce. Available in single or double patties”.
  3. BEN’S FAMOUS CHILI BOWLS: “Homemade chili con carne or veggie chili, made with the freshest natural ingredients and a touch of love. Available in small or large sizes.”
  4. VEGAN CHILI: “Made with a healthy, tasty combination of texturized vegetable protein, green peppers, onions, tomatoes, kidney beans, and love.”