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Fearless Critic restaurant review
Counter service

Mon–Thu 6:00am–2:00am
Fri–Sat 6:00am–4:00am
Sun 11:00am–8:00pm

Features Kid-friendly, veg-friendly, Wi-Fi
Bar None
Credit cards None


U Street
1213 U St. NW
Washington, DC
(202) 667-0909

Nationals Park
1500 S. Capitol St. SE
Washington, DC
Ben’s Chili Bowl
A DC favorite that’s changing with the times—even if the chili is immortal

Ben’s Chili Bowl is not just a landmark eatery—it’s a landmark in its own right. With the immense changes that have overcome the U Street neighborhood lately, replacing jazz musicians and Bill Cosby with preppy twentysomethings in Polo shirts, we wonder if the cooks have changed their tune. The restaurant has made some slight alterations, including the recent opening up of the next-door bar and restaurant called (believe it or not) Next Door, and, more darkly, the opening of an outpost at Nationals Stadium.

They certainly don’t seem to have changed their recipes, though, and Ben’s no-nonsense offerings (at no-nonsense prices) curry what might be called a cult following, which now includes (and has now been multiplied by) Barack Obama. Still, now that the restaurant has gotten uncomfortably crowded—especially on weekend nights—and has lost any semblance of atmosphere or hints of personal attention, there’s not a whole lot to distinguish Ben’s beyond the cheap and plentiful nature of its offerings. The chili-cheese half-smoke, the canonical order, is delightful, but you could make most of what’s on the menu at home: the chili is red-kidney-bean heavy, although its intense flavor indicates sufficient stewing. The half-smokes are standard but nicely charred on the grill, and the French fries are a bit wet (okay, you probably don’t have a deep fryer at home, but that doesn’t mean you can’t deep fry). Ben’s also serves breakfast (alas, only at breakfast hours), with sides of grits or apples and sticky maple syrup.

Maybe the best thing about Ben’s is that it’s not home, that it’s Ben’s, that there are a hundred dogs roasting and fifty burgers grilling and order upon order of french fries frying. Come in at midnight, and you don’t know if the folks behind you are wrapping up their evening or just getting it started. And could you really pour chili all over your burger at home? And even if you could, would you? Would you pour chili over everything in sight, be it a hot dog, a plate of chips, or a sub?

Well, maybe you would, but it still probably wouldn’t be as enjoyable as it is at Ben’s, with its plastic booths and beaten-down spinning barstools and its cafeteria mentality. The Bowl may have become a strange facsimile of its old self as the neighborhood’s changed, but it continues to feed that same hunger—most acute at 2am—which is only sated by an “Original Chili Half-Smoke.”

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