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Posted at 3:32 PM ET, 04/ 4/2008

Portrait of a D.C. Institution: Ben's Chili Bowl

By Julia Beizer

The lunch rush was in full swing at Ben's Chili Bowl today. A long line snaked into the back room, half-smokes were flying off the grill and cooks could be heard crooning old-school R&B.

In other words, the atmosphere at this divey U Street joint was just like it has been for the past 50 years. Ben's is one of the few establishments on U Street that survived the riots that swept through this city 40 years ago after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Thanks to the perserverance of the Ali family, who founded and still operate the restaurant, Ben's has flourished -- attracting locals, tourists and even the occasional visiting film crew.

But how does a chili-dog stand with seats establish and maintain its status as a D.C. institution? I spent lunch there today in an attempt to figure it out.


Customers chow down at Ben's in this 1998 photo. (Juana Arias - The Washington Post)

"Food's good" was a common refrain, but more common than that were reactions to the friendly atmosphere. "When you come in here, you feel comfortable," said Marshall Brown, 63, who has been coming to Ben's for 40 years. "You've got white folks, black folks all in here together. It doesn't matter."

From his perch at the counter, Brown took on the role of Ben's historian today, dishing about changes in the neighborhood, race relations and Civil Rights. According to him, the family-like atmosphere was alive at Ben's even back in the '60s. "You got to remember that during the rebellions -- I don't want to call them riots -- nobody messed with Ben's because Ben's was part of us," he said. Even though U Street was in the heart of the 1968 tumult, Ben's stayed open.

Marva Jacobs, who was visiting Ben's for the first time today, noticed its spirit instantly when she arrived with three companions from the Air Force. "They said hi to us the minute we walked in the door," she said.

"I like that it's not commercialized," said Heather Menzies, another member of the Air Force party. She heard about Ben's through a special on the Food Network, and when her unit was deployed to Andrews Air Force Base, she knew she had to try it. "We're trying to reach Bill Cosby status," said fellow Air Force man, Joe Byrd, who noticed the comedian's pictures on the walls.

According to Brown, Cosby told managment that they should never change the jukebox, the cash register or the front window. And for the most part, nothing much does change around Ben's. Sure, vegetarian options have found their way onto a meat-filled menu, but otherwise, the restaurant seems to be stuck in time.


One of the Chili Bowl's many iconic signs. (Julia Beizer - washingtonpost.com)

"I come here for the tradition," said Steve McCrayney, a patron for 30 years who dines here with his mother and son. "The menu's always been the same, so you know what you want," added his companion Kahlil Taylor.

"Cities need places like this," said Dave Lashway, who traveled across town to eat at Ben's in honor of Dr. King today. When asked why, he responded simply, "It's the heart of the city."

--Julia

By Julia Beizer  | April 4, 2008; 3:32 PM ET
Categories:  Restaurants  
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