WASHINGTON -- It was the summer of 1958. Eisenhower was president. The Washington Senators were playing baseball in Griffith Stadium. And newlyweds Ben and Virginia Ali were about to launch a new enterprise.
So began a neighborhood diner that evolved into a D.C. institution. Located in the Shaw district at 12th and U streets NW, Ben's Chili Bowl sits in the heart of what once was "Black Broadway," a strip of clubs and theaters where strains of jazz echoed in the streets. "The Bowl" soon became a favorite -- both for locals and for stars playing the "chitlin' circuit." Everyone from Duke Ellington to Miles Davis to Nat King Cole stopped in.
The end of Shaw's heyday saw the neighborhood fall into decline, but Ben's endured. When race riots swallowed Shaw, Ben's obtained permission to stay open after curfew to provide a meeting place for aid workers. When construction of the Metro tore apart U Street, Ben's stayed open to feed the workers.
Today, as revitalized Shaw is attracting shoppers and bar hoppers, Ben's Chili Bowl is still here serving them dogs and burgers for lunch or late-night snacks.
On a recent Tuesday, Ben's is doing a brisk lunchtime business. The Alis' son is working the register. The steady stream of customers includes punk-looking kids and fashionable business people and everyone in between. They line up to order and pay before taking a seat, perching on stools, or settling into booths.
The furniture is chrome with red plastic upholstery. It looks ultra-trendy retro, but this is the real deal: Most of it is original from 1958. The walls are plastered with newspaper clippings highlighting Ben's Chili Bowl over the years. The aroma of sizzling dogs and simmering chili hangs in the air.
A large man in an apron slides an order across the Formica counter: a plump hot dog dripping with "secret-recipe" chili, mustard, and onions, with a sweet iced tea to wash it down. A sign on the wall boasts "Our chili will make a hot dog bark!" Bark, yes, but not bite. The chili is spicy enough to leave a tingle on the tongue but not enough to overwhelm the dog's delicious, artery-clogging goodness. The hungry customer devours it.
Besides the Famous Chili Dog, the menu features the Chili Half-Smoke, the original-since-1958 specialty. The difference is the Half-Smoke dog is split and grilled and topped with twice as much stuff. This is the favorite of Bill Cosby, a celebrity regular since 1985, when he held a national press conference here to celebrate the success of "The Cosby Show." Other menu classics include chili burgers, chili con carne, and sides such as fries and slaw. Tuna subs, turkey burgers, and vegetarian chili accommodate the more health-conscious customer.
The healthier menu items are among the few changes that Ben's has conceded in 45 years. Outside, U Street is getting a makeover, but the diner looks much as it did in 1958. And the Alis swear they still use the same secret chili recipe that made them famous. The more things change, the more Ben's stays the same.
Ben's Chili Bowl, 1213 U St. NW, Washington, D.C., 202-667-0909, www.benschilibowl.com. Meals from $2.80, open 11 a.m.-2 a.m., weekends until 4 a.m., Sundays noon-8 p.m.