Photo by Ben Schumin, courtesy of Wikimedia

Photo by Ben Schumin, courtesy of Wikimedia

If the half-smoke is Washington’s defining dish, as everyone from the Post Magazine to the Washington City Paper has said time and time again, then Ben’s Chili Bowl is Webster’s dictionary.

Whether you’re a famous celebrity chef or a famous Travel Channel – ummm – traveler, Ben’s is a must.  And considering that Ben’s has been a witness to the past half-century of Washington’s history, is that really a surprise?

This Friday, August 22nd, marks Ben’s Chili Bowl’s fiftieth anniversary, and this icon is throwing open the doors to celebrate with the Washington community in a big way – with an Anniversary Gala Thursday night at the Lincoln Theatre, a Block Party, and an all-day concert at the 9:30 Club.

More about the events, a commemorative book that has just been released, and a few thoughts about the best way to enjoy Ben’s (no, it’s not drunk – though that’s not bad, either) after the jump.

Ben’s Chili Bowl Fiftieth Anniversary Events:

Fiftieth Anniversary Gala
Thursday, August 21, 2008
8:00 PM
Lincoln Theatre (1215 U Street, NW)
Cocktail Attire

This evening of songs and stories will look back over the past 50 years, with a focus on Ben’s role within Washington and, more specifically, Shaw.  Bill Cosby, Ben’s favorite celebrity fan, will serve as Master of Ceremonies and Roberta Flack will perform.  Tickets are free, but they’re being given out randomly at Ben’s Chili Bowl all week until they’re gone.  What better excuse do you need to grab a half-smoke for lunch (or breakfast) today?

Fiftieth Anniversary Press Conference & Block Party
Friday, August 22, 2008 (the official 50th anniversary)
Press Conference @ 10:30 AM
On U Street in front of Ben’s – between 12th and 13th Streets
Block Party to follow press conference until 2:00 PM

If listening to city officials talk about the Ali family, the importance of Ben’s Chili Bowl, and how excited they are for the Bowl’s “next fifty years” (and they will – you know it) sounds less than thrilling, skip the press conference and swing by around 11:30 or so.  Russ Parr and Donnie Simpson will both be broadcasting live from the block party that will take place on the street outside Ben’s, and there are promises of music, celebrities, entertainment and all kinds of fun.

Ben’s Chili Bowl Fiftieth Anniversary Concert – FREE
Sunday, August 24, 2008
2PM – 10PM
9:30 Club (815 V Street, NW)
Free admission, but it’s first come, first served

With live music throughout the day from groups like Mambo Sauce, Trouble Funk and Pancake Mountain, the 9:30 Club is the place to celebrate this milestone – but come early, because they will only be able to admit people until capacity is reached.

If your deep, abiding love of Ben’s Chili Bowl and their addictive chili cheese fries leads you toward more scholarly pursuits, you may want to check out a new book that has just been released.  “Ben’s Chili Bowl: 50 Years of a Washington, D.C., Landmark” is part of the Images of America series from Arcadia Publishing, and it’s a love letter to Ben’s (and to all of their fans, really) featuring some great images and stories from the past fifty years.  Written by Tracey Gold Bennett and Nizam Ali (one of Ben and Virginia Ali’s sons who works at the Bowl today), the book is available for $19.99 at bookstores or in the restaurant (the easier to get an authentic chili stain on the title page!).  It even contains a family recipe from Virginia Ali.

All this celebration aside, newcomers may be wondering just what it is about Ben’s that has made a simple hot dog-and-chili joint such a fixture in the lexicon of Washington life.  Sure, some of it can be ascribed to the celebrity following – but Jell-O Pudding Pops and Kodak film have fallen by the wayside while Cosby’s favorite half smoke is still going strong.  And some of it is certainly attributable to the siren song of grilled sausages, chili and milkshakes after a night of drinking in Adams Morgan or at the 9:30 Club, but you don’t see people lining up to celebrate the legacy of Jumbo Slice.  At the end of the day, the lion’s share of the attention that Ben’s Chili Bowl receives comes from the way they have worked to become part of the fabric of the Shaw Community: staying open late during the riots of ’68, serving the construction workers who built the Green Line (and tore up U Street in the process) in the late ’80s.

And how do we do Ben’s?  It varies from time to time (level of sobriety plays a part, of course), but it almost always involves a half smoke, covered with chili and mustard, and matched with a chocolate or cherry milkshake.  A vegetarian friend turned us on to the fact that the veggie chili makes a GREAT topping for the fries – maybe even better than the original beef chili!  And if you’re wearing something you’d rather not get dirty, our advice is definitely to roll up your sleeves…food like Ben’s is not meant to be eaten daintily, with a knife and fork, so there’s likely to be some spilling and some splashing. 

Whether you sit at the counter – a great way to chat up the guys who work the line – or grab your food and make your way to the tables further back in the place, you’re in for a great meal.  And they’re open until 2 AM Monday through Thursday and 4 AM Friday and Saturday – but be prepared to wait in a long (though fast-moving) line after last call…they fill up fast!

Ben’s Chili Bowl
1213 U Street, NW
Washington, DC  20009
(202) 667-0909

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