The story surrounding how a simple sausage creation became a beloved Washington staple may vary, nevertheless, the spicy frank left an enduring imprint on locals. The district simply would not taste the same if Ben’s Chili Bowl never dropped its immaculately spiced chili on a half beef, half pork breakfast sausage. But for locals, Ben’s is more than a hot joint; it’s one of many Washington memorials.
The hot dog shrine has a 60-year track record of being the city’s favorite late-night spot on Washington’s famed U Street corridor. When you mention Ben’s in the district, Washingtonians will make an impassioned case for the fundamental, yet often forgotten importance of Ben’s place in history. Since the late ‘50s, African-American heroes roamed into “The Bowl”—it wouldn’t be uncommon to spot Duke Ellington, Martin Luther King Jr., Miles Davis, or Ella Fitzgerald parked at the white Formica countertop throughout Ben’s long history.
But even if you don’t know the name, you should know that the restaurant pioneered a new way of serving sausages. Ben’s Chili Bowl is often credited for the chili half-smoke you can now buy at almost every hot dog stand in the district.
During segregation, U Street was called “Black Broadway” and the black community in Washington and migrants from the South unified there around theatre and jazz. The jazz clubs and after-hours clubs made U Street a perfect location for a late-night eatery. In 1958, Trinidadian immigrant Ben Ali and his wife, Virginia Ali, invested $5000 to turn a silent film cinema into a cultural landmark.
Co-owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl, Kamal Ben Ali, said his dad (now deceased) spotted a gap in the market. One-too-many hamburger spots in Washington led his parents to opening Ben’s. In the process of converting a theatre into a hot dog eatery, Kamal said his dad accidentally invented a new way of eating a popular breakfast sausage.
“Washingtonians don’t really eat hot dogs, they eat a slightly spicier version of a normal frank that you can literally find at every hot dog stand in the district,” says Kamal. Many in the Washington-Maryland region say the sausage with mustard, chopped onions, and homemade chili on a hot dog bun is Kamal’s dad’s invention. Founder Ben Ali put a breakfast sausage on a bun, with chili, and called it a chili half-smoke.
“He turned the sausage into a sandwich, for lunch and dinner and late-night. You can only find it in the D.C., Baltimore area. If you go to other cities and ask for a half-smoke, they don’t really know what you’re talking about,” says Ali.
It’s sort of a smoked sausage or red hot frank, and if you like sloppy dogs, it’s immensely satisfying while you’re on the go, or gorging on junk food after late night partying.
Kamal said Ben’s signature sandwich has pretty much stayed the same since its start: “Eating habits have changed and people are eating more exotic things, but there’s still room for chili cheese smokes and chili cheese fries.”
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Aside from half-smokes and the retro ambiance (that has also stayed the same since Ben’s opened), the restaurant has remained a favorite gathering place for politicians like President Barack Obama, athletes, and movies stars.
According to Kamal everyone that passes through Washington comes to The Chili Bowl. “We’re reflective of everything that happens in Washington. U Street is a place that people come to and flock to for some reason…after or before, no matter what is going on,” he says. “Gay rights, civil rights, human rights, or whatever’s happening in town, we get a piece of that at The Chili Bowl.”
It’s interesting to see that Ben’s has been on the cutting edge of so many nationwide political shifts, and it’s because the diner is reflective of all that happens in Washington, according to Kamal. Indeed, six decades later, 83-year-old Virginia Ali, her son Kamal Ben Ali, and his brothers, can still be found celebrating U Street’s rich heritage. You will find the family bringing the city together for cultural excursions, political gatherings, and community events at the diner.
The family says Ben’s Chili Bowl is open to everyone, and they invite all to come and explore Washington’s offbeat history.
Header image courtesy of Steve Snodgrass/flickr.