February 18, 2013

Project DC: Ben's Chili Bowl

Ben's Chili Bowl is one of those DC institutions that I somehow missed. When I first moved to the city, I kept hearing how I had to go there to try out their chili and that it was a must-do DC activity. It's been in the same storefront since the late 1950s, surviving the 1968 riots and standing strong even when the neighborhood became known for its loitering drug addicts. The U Street/ Shaw area has gone through a lot of changes over the years, yet Ben's Chili Bowl has remained. There's something very cool about that kind of history.

In all fairness, I didn't intentionally skirt Ben's. I did try to go there when I first moved to DC. I stood in a line that extended into the alley next to the building for about five minutes before my friend and I looked at each other, shrugged, and decided that it would be far easier to just walk down the street for some Ethiopian food instead.

I first had Ben's Chili Bowl at a DC United game, when they used to be one of the vendors at RFK Stadium. They had a small booth behind the section where our seats always were, and I would fill myself up with chili cheese fries as I cheered on our team. Then, after they left RFK to be the new vendor at the Nationals Stadium, I would get my chili fix at baseball games.

But this, I guessed, was not what people meant when they said I had to go to Ben's Chili Bowl. Going to sporting events is not the same as walking down U Street, though I suppose this is debatable if you're in the U Street neighborhood on a Saturday night, weaving your way through the crowds. But still. Not the same. Even President Obama made it there during his first few weeks in town, and he certainly is a bit busier than I am.

So this past weekend, the hubs and I hopped on the 96 bus and went to Ben's. It was around two in the afternoon, so I suspected that there would be a long line, but I was not prepared for the mayhem that we encountered. The line wove back and forth the entire length of the restaurant, and not a single table was open. I had flashbacks of my first attempt to eat there and refused to leave defeated a second time. So we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

During all of this waiting, I mentally devised my critique of the seating guidelines. According to the servers, while larger groups can grab a table as soon as one opens and then place their order with a waitress, couples are not allowed to sit until they have ordered from the front counter. So even though I had been hovering in the back room for half an hour waiting for open seats, I was not allowed to sit down until the hubs made it to the front counter and had our food in his hands. That meant that the group of three who arrived half an hour after we did got to sit down before we did. This struck me as being unfair, and I really can't think of any good reasons for why this rule exists. What made it more frustrating is that while I was following the rules, I spotted two other couples split up so that one could grab a table while the other waited in line to order, so clearly the rules weren't being enforced. Lesson learned: goody-goodies sit last.

As this was going on, my stomach was rumbling, and I was ready to tackle anyone who took the next open table. I began to doubt whether this was all really worth it, and I was feeling more and more stressed. All in all, this was not the fun lunch outing I had pictured.

The hubs texted me to come up to the front counter, and I wearily stumbled through the giant crowd to find him. I spotted him grinning by the counter, guarding a stool for me, our chili dogs and cheese fries waiting to be eaten. As I sat down, the hubs stood next to me since there was no other available seating. I looked over at him with what I'm sure was a particularly pathetic expression on my face, and then I shoved a forkful of cheese fries into my mouth.

It was delicious.

I've had more flavorful, memorable chili, sure. And the cheese is your basic melted nacho cheese. Nothing out of the ordinary. But as I sat there on my stool, no longer sad or cranky with hunger, I looked around and smiled at the old-fashioned menu above the stovetops, the sign that said nobody except Bill Cosby and the Obama family could eat free at Ben's, and the overall no-frills feel to the place.

It wasn't about having the best food in the city. It wasn't even entirely about going to such a famous DC landmark. As I sat there, I could picture Ben's on a slower afternoon during the week and how, when experienced as just another place to grab a bite, it could feel really nice to have this sort of place as a comforting go-to. I began to imagine what the inside of this place must have felt like when the neighborhood around it was going through so much tumult. If these walls could talk...

So even if our weekend visit was a bit high on the stress levels, I can't be too upset with Ben's Chili Bowl. It's too much of a survivor to dismiss it as just another tourist attraction. Sure, you can go for the chili. You can even go for the cheese fries. But don't forget the history.

Ben's Chili Bowl
1213 U Street NW


Want to read more about having fun in DC? Follow along as I embark on Project DC:

2. Go for a leisurely hike in Rock Creek Park.
3. Go on a White House tour.
5. Visit Old Town on a day trip.
6. Take a day trip to Annapolis.
7. Go to the Newseum.
8. Go back to Jazz in the Garden when it starts up again in the spring.
9. Go to the Holocaust Museum.
10. Eat at Ben's Chili Bowl.
11. See the FDR Memorial.
13. Go to the National Portrait Gallery.
14. Go to the Corcoran.
15. Visit the Vietnam Memorial.
17. Go to more embassy events.
18. See a show at Rock & Roll Hotel.
19. See the drum circle at Malcolm X Park.
20. Mini golf at H Street Country Club.
21. Evening drinks at POV.
22. Visit the National Archives.
23. See a Washington Ballet performance.
24. Walk through the National Arboretum.