Simply put, Ben’s Chili Bowl is a Washington, D.C. icon.
Take a peek at a tourist’s to-do list and “grab a half-smoke at Ben’s” might just be on there between “see the Washington Monument” and “snap a selfie at the White House.”
As well it should. The chili-slathered sausage served up at Ben’s is a thing of simple beauty, in that bad-for-you-but-oh-so-good kind of way. But it’s not just the food that’s a D.C. tradition. The restaurant and its story have become legendary: The place, bought and opened in 1958 by two newlyweds, that remains to this day. The spot that stood unaltered as witness to decades of change, especially in its U Street neighborhood. The little eatery where people from all walks of life gather to chow down.
Ben’s has a rich story, and the next chapter in that history opened earlier this month. The setting: Northern Virginia.
On March 6, Ben’s Chili Bowl opened in Rosslyn’s Colonial Village Shopping Center on Wilson Boulevard, former home to Ray’s Hell Burger. The Ali family, which has owned the business from the start, cut the ceremonial ribbon that morning with Bill Cosby, a longtime supporter and one of many celebrity customers Ben’s has served.
President Barack Obama and Bono are two more, both of whom have their pictures on the wall of the new Rosslyn location. Along one wall are a plethora of celebrity snaps at Ben’s Chili Bowl from years past. Along the opposite wall is a timeline of photos and facts, detailing not just the history of the business, but its place in the history of the District.
The dining room has the same 1950s diner vibe of the original, but the look is very new, with unabused red vinyl seats and pristine Formica tables. At the back of the restaurant is where orders are placed and the food is prepared. A look behind the counter, at the giant spoon dipped into a vat of chili read to dole out the namesake stuff, is enough to make the mouth water.
How will your chili be dispensed? The popular picks are the Ben’s Original Chili Half-Smoke ($5.95) and the Ben’s Classic Chili Dog ($4.40, more for jumbo or veggie dogs). The centerpiece of both is the chili sauce, meaty and with a peppery spiciness, which conceals mustard and chopped white onion and drips over steamed buns. It’s good on the basic dog, but better on the half-smoke. The pork-and-beef sausage has a bigger flavor, not to mention the snap of the casing and the char from the grill, to stand up to the powerful chili.
Both the dog and half-smoke come with a side of potato chips. Fries can be ordered as a side and, as one might expect, they can be doused in the chili, too. The Chili Cheese Fries ($5.95) offer an ample portion of fries coated first in molten cheese, then in the spicy chili sauce.
You can order chili straight up, made with chunks of ground beef, kidney beans, green pepper pieces, and tiny bits of translucent onion. A small bowl costs $4.55, and for a few cents more you can get some cheddar cheese, raw onion pieces, and sour cream added on top. (The cost for a gallon, by the way, is just shy of $50 – because it’s so good someone would consider buying a gallon of it.) For an interesting and tasty way to enjoy this chili, try it over rice in the Ben’s Rice Bowl ($6.95).
Stopping by the iconic U Street location of Ben’s Chili Bowl is a special experience, but local devotees of the food should be glad that there is a new place to get the chili and half-smokes they crave.
Ben’s Chili Bowl is located at 1725 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. For more information, call 703-649-5255 or visit benschilibowl.com. Restaurant hours are Monday – Sunday: 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. (with later hours anticipated)