Where Cosby and Obama Eat Free: Ben’s Chili Bowl

Ben’s Chili Bowl is a DC institution. “Proudly black owned and operated since 1958”, read a sign posted alongside their menu board. It has seen the black population grow and prosper, react to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and watched as the neighbourhood took a turn for the worse. But Ben’s has survived it all, and continues to thrive, gaining national accord for its food.

Ben’s Chili Bowl

The restaurant qualifies as a bonafide tourist destination itself, as it is included in every guidebook, in addition to having been featured in Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. It was the first eatery that I put on our list when I started to plan our trip.

Though I thought we had timed our visit well, conveniently arriving after 1pm, the order area was absolutely packed – the line stretched across the counter and wound itself around and back towards the seating area.

We had to be patient, but the wait was made bearable by the upbeat, funky tunes and having a front row seat to the kitchen and the culture of the place. Even though customers continued to flood through the doors, the ease at which the staff worked through it was a pleasure to watch. Our time in line also allowed us to spot a sign just behind the cashier that read, “People who eat free at Ben’s Chili Bowl: Bill Cosby and the Obamas”.

Smokies on the grill

Our order of two chili dogs, chili cheese fries and a drink came in at just $16, making it our best value for dollar meal of the trip. We had a seat at one of the tables, and waited for our order to arrive.

At Ben’s Chili Bowl

A smoldering tray of food was soon delivered – two hot dogs draped in a generous chili cape, and fries smothered in a deliciously messy combination of cheese and their trademark chili. There wasn’t any chance we wouldn’t like our food – greasy spoon diners are a particular soft spot for both of us. The chili packed a fair amount of heat, while the near-pureed beef was the right consistency to accompany both the hot dog and fries.

Chili Dog and chips

Chili Cheese Fries

Near the end of our meal, a fellow patron approached our table, and pointed out to Mack that President Obama had sat in his chair not too long ago, just across from Mayor Adrian Fenty. Though we had noticed that the Seal of the President had been placed on the wall just above the chair, it hadn’t occurred to us that the reason for it was to act as a marker. Just above the seal was a blown-up photo of Obama and Fenty, as well as a smaller picture of the President posing with diner staff.

Mack in Obama’s seat!

The man then asked Mack if his choice of seat thus pointed out his destiny to become the next President. Mack replied, “I can’t – I’m Canadian.”

Perhaps if Governor Schwarzenegger can change the Constitution, there will be hope for Mack yet. Thanks Ben’s for a great experience.

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

7 thoughts on “Where Cosby and Obama Eat Free: Ben’s Chili Bowl

  1. Looking at the chili, I can’t help ask the following: does it have beans? You know, purists say it shouldn’t…

    “I’m Canadian” – best quote ever!

  2. KimHo – I don’t think the chili had any beans.

    Adam – thanks for the catch! That’s what you get for posting late at night…

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