When I moved to DC, one of my first stops was Ben’s Chili Bowl. Since then, it’s still the first place I take all my visitors, because before anyone sees anything else in this town, you need to come here. Everyone needs to see Ben’s Chili Bowl. This is D.C.
For more than six decades, this landmark restaurant on U Street — the street was known as “Black Broadway” — has been an integral part of this city’s history and its ongoing civil rights movements.
The food at Ben’s is a vehicle. Food is fuel. Food is connection. When you have that symphony of multi-layered representation, beautiful things can happen. People can celebrate, people can recharge, and people can meet over a meal.
Ben’s has been providing that essential platform to D.C. for decades.
Virginia Ali, now 86 years old, opened Ben’s Chili Bowl at age 24 in August 1958 with her newlywed husband, Ben. The restaurant came at a time when D.C. was still segregated, and it always fed its community. It donated food to the 1963 march on Washington (Dr. King, whose office was up the street, would “pop in” to the restaurant, according to Ali.) It stayed open during the 1968 protests. It’s where Obama went a few days before his inauguration.
This is where protestors, advocates, and leaders gathered. This is where marching masses ate. This is where I brought my culinary director here to discuss my own dreams to best use my own platform.
And it has thrived for this long because the food is delicious and straightforward. As a chef, that’s what strikes me the most. Hot dogs, chili cheese dogs. You don’t need to explain it or think about it. You don’t need to know the nuances; you just need to enjoy it.
People say food is culture, right? I’ve always believed that the food that best represents the widest demographic of a nation’s culture is usually under 10 dollars. Anything more than that doesn’t really showcase what the working class eat. That’s what it means to be authentic. For me, that means two chili half-smokes with cheese, french fries, and a fruit punch.
Ben’s Chili Bowl: 1213 U St NW, Washington, D.C. benschilibowl.com
Kwame Onwuachi is an award-winning chef.