Ben’s Chili Bowl (U Street, Washington DC)

I’m gonna repost this old review that I wrote on Party Earth:


Image from bing.

Ben’s Chili Bowl is a fixture of Washington DC in much the same way an old general might be a fixture of his town bar. It has seen everything and lived to tell about it.

Having opened in 1958, Ben’s Chili Bowl was one of the few U Street businesses to survive the riots after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and it’s also lived through several less dramatic but almost equally destructive gentrification movements. Bill Cosby and Barack Obama have eaten there too, ensuring that it will be in business until the end of time.

My friend Adam and I went there on Thursday and were immediately taken in by the ambiance. It’s an old lunch counter, but much bigger, with separate rooms staked out towards the back. It looks like they’ve expanded at least three times. There’s all sorts of newspaper articles about the founder on the walls and a giant painting of MLK in the back. There’s comforting soul music playing (too loud for my taste, but still good music) and the place is clean. The vastness of the place gives it a majestic air.

The staff is really friendly. I was asked if I wanted my veggie burger grilled or microwaved (who would say microwaved?) and I asked to try veggie chili and they put it in my burger. The chili, Adam and I agreed, was decent and had “a bit of a kick” to it, but still not all that different from good salsa.  My veggie burger was also good. I got it with cheese, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomatoes, and the aforementioned chili. It’s good in the sense of standard fare though: you can eat it and you’ll enjoy where you’re eating it, but it won’t knock your socks off.

The best thing was the potato salad. They put green and white onions in it in abundant proportions, and they don’t make the potato too gloppy. Typing about that salad is making me hungry.  So Ben’s Chili Bowl is THE place to go for the ambiance and legitimacy, but not the place to go for grade-A spicy soul food. It’s lunch. Enjoy it.

My Rating: 7
Recommended Dish: Potato Salad
Atmosphere: friendly old diner
Price Range: $8-$12 per person
Clientele: Everyone, but a lot of regulars and old-timers

1213 U Street NW
Washington, DC 20009

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