From December 2005
In business in the same location since 1958, Ben's Chili Bowl is not just a restaurant; it's a U Street institution, a living artifact. During the years of the civil-rights movement, Ben's, a short hop from Howard University, was a gathering place for many of the movement's leading figures. A young Bill Cosby courted his future wife, Camille, at Ben's. Rioters devastated U Street but spared Ben's. These days, with condo development altering the neighborhood, its clientele is largely young, white, and affluent.
The food is less of a draw than the atmosphere, with its loud, peppery chatter about the mayor, the Redskins, and the merits of gentrification. Ben's is best known for its chili dog and chili burger, fairly ordinary specimens of each topped by thin, not very flavorful chili. A side of fries is obligatory and may be ordered topped with chili or cheese--in reality a Cheez Whiz-like yellow sauce. Get it on the side or it turns the fries soggy.
Ben's is at its best at breakfast, a meal surprisingly hard to come by in DC. Bacon or sausage with two eggs cooked to order, grits, and a biscuit is a deal for $5.99, and the pancakes and eggs are good, too.
Ben's, flaws and all, is the kind of place every neighborhood needs--the kind of place every city needs. Let's wish Ben's another half century of prosperity.