Judging Restaurants – Ben’s Chili Bowl

Obviously Ben’s Chili Bowl, located at 1213 U St, NW, is an institution and no longer a “regular” restaurant particularly after President Obama ate there. But, it amazes me that the lines (admittedly there have always been some lines as long as I can remember) have remained this big, regularly snaking outside around the building. So I’m curious what folks think – are there still big fans out there?

You can see their menus here. I’m embarrassed to admit I had no idea they had a breakfast menu.

For the fans what do you order?

Personally I’m a huge fan of the chili cheese fries but to be honest haven’t stopped in for one in many months. I think I know what I’m doing for lunch tomorrow…

59 Comment

  • It’s simple and straightfoward – you can’t go there expecting it to be something it’s not. About half of it is the experience. I personally love it and I definitely prefer their half smokes to be something we’re locally famous for rather than the (IMO) bland cheesesteaks of Gino’s and whatever the other guy’s place was.

  • heartburn city

  • Ditto. It tastes ok going in, tastes even worse going out!
    Check out DC-3 on Barracks, those are some good dogs.

    • Ben’s blows DC-3 out of the water. I can’t believe I’m hearing this blasphemy. DC-3 is fine for a Cap Hill hot dog joint, but it’s not Ben’s.

  • Ben’s is ok, but I find it embarassing that it’s considered THE food destination in DC that every high-profile visitor has to go to. We can do so much better.

    • Get over it. New York street vendors, Philly cheesesteaks, the must have food in every city is cheap and greasy. Obviously there are better places that people who care to learn about can go to, but I think you’re missing the point here. Ben’s honestly stacks nicely compares with what other cities tout as their specialty greasy spoon.

    • For high-profile visitors, I think the draw to Ben’s is less the food and more the history. Ben’s is the center of so many stories both about DC in general and the U Street neighborhood in particular. Agree that the food is just regular greasy spoon but it comes with a side of historical importance beyond anything they serve.

      Except for the cherry milkshakes! Soooo tasty!

  • I go when I crave a chili dog –once or twice a year usually — it’s an amusing place and I find the service quick and friendly. Since Obama went I find it best to avoid weekends when the place seems swamped with tourists.

  • I go somtimes on Saturday morning at 7:00 am when they open to get breakfast. Their breakfasts are huge–could easily serve two-but I eat it allanyway!

    • Yes, this place is great for breakfast. It’s not quite as good as Steak n Egg, but it’s better than the Diner.

      The trick with Ben’s is to go when they’re not busy. You’ll actually get table service. It’s fun. If I lived nearby, I’d probably be getting my breakfast there a couple times a week.

  • The chili half-smokes are great, the fries are not that great, and I would never wait in a long line to get in there.

  • Its good but a bit overrated – reminds me of that Georgetown Cupcake place.

    • Pretty sure this is a troll post…

      • how was that a troll post?
        Just like Georgetown Cupcake, Ben’s Chili bowl is good, but a bit overrated. Both establishments do not merit the lines…

        • the ratings seem a bit mixed here actually, not overrated at all.

          • “Eh it’s ok” has a plurality. I’d say that is a pretty good indicator that it’s wildly overrated.

          • “eh it’s okay” is over rating a place?

          • When Ben’s Chili Bowl is featured in tourist guidebooks as a “Washington institution” and a “must-see” local landmark, but a plurality of people think “Eh, it’s ok,” then yeah, I’d say that it’s overrated.

          • Isn’t that how everyone feels about Geno’s and Pats? I mean, you have to start from the assumption that everyone actually likes and wants to eat the product. In this case, a half smoke. if you do, Ben’s is good. It’s not something you want to eat everyday, but it’s unique and tasty and a really fun experience. I would say it is not overrated at all. People just like to complain about anything that becomes an institution. Like Britney Spears. Look what people like you did to her.

          • A lot of it has to do with expectations, and that’s not Ben’s fault. But if something is considered a local institution, it had better be really fucking good. Ben’s isn’t, and thus, is overrated.

          • why do you care what people rate things?
            i’ve never know anyone to leave bens unhappy. ive never know anyone going into a chili place or sandwich counter expecting a gourmet experience.

            bens has a reputation for its place and its clientele, not it’s food.
            what’s to overrate? the experience? bill cosby? a long lasting business?

            jez, ya’ll are just harshing on a place cuz people like it more than you like it.

          • It’s an institution b/c of history. Institutions aren’t born overnight. It’s a symbol. And it serves one of the best breakfasts in town. It doesn’t have to appease non-fans to keep doing lucrative business. Enough people love it already.

  • The chocolate milk shakes are the best tasting thing they’ve got.

  • If you like the food and hate the lines, just go to Ben’s Next Door. A lot of what’s on their menu is literally the same food.

  • One of the few places I’ve found that offer a good veggie dog/veggie chili combo. Plus, gotta love it for the history.

  • How is Ben’s Next Door? I don’t like the chili bowl at all but have been curious about the other place.

    • The fried chicken with sweet potato mash and kale at Next Door is pretty damn good. The mac & cheese is good too. You can order some of the staple items from Ben’s in the front bar area. The scene is pretty chill. I like the place.

  • Food is ok; chili makes me a bit ill so I avoid that.

    However, I have been staying away lately because they have raised their prices so much. They are literally double what they were pre-obama. I understand they wanna make money and it doesn’t seem to be hurting business so can’t blame them, but I took an out-of-town friend there with her two kids and felt really guilty that she paid so much for so little.

    • ..or the fact that gentrification has raised their property taxes.

      • i think the city raises the taxes, not this mysterious “gentrification” entity, whoever he is.

        you know, the council can opt to just not raise taxes, right?

    • Oh please! They are an all-cash business. Who knows how much they’re raking in?!

  • The only place I would stand in line for them is at a Nats game. And at a Nats game I practically HAVE to.

  • the veggie chili cheese fries are great. the atmosphere is great. whenever i have a craving, i try to ignore it for the sake of my health.

  • I like the story, dislike the food, hate the prices. While it’s an “original” part of U Street culture, instead of remaining a neighborhood joint, it’s pandering to tourists.

  • Kudos to Ben’s for becoming so popular–it’s a shame it can be so hard for us locals to get a table but I’m proud to have them as ambassadors of our city. I have had occasion to work with the Ali family recently and can say they are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. I second the suggestion to try Ben’s Next Door–you can still get a half smoke there and the other food is pretty stellar too!

  • These days I draw the line at the fried egg sandwich. Who could screw that up. I had the “chili” sauce once and it is gagably bad and weird tasting. A plain hot dog is about as fancy as I get now. The fries are decent but again, weird concoctions of gravy, chili food sauce, cheese all have post digested presentation (and smell) before you eat them. I’m sick just thinking about it.

  • I’m addicted to their breakfasts. Gotta have the salmon cakes with two eggs or their french toast. I wish they would offer breakfast on Sundays too but I guess they have to rest sometimes. I rarely go there anymore except in the winter because after that the tourists overrun the place.

  • Gross and expensive. I would rather eat a hot dog or a Taquito from the Tilt-a-Whirl at 7-11: likely 1/5th the price, no lines, and tastes just as awful.

  • I take visiting out-of-towners there, but only once per visitor. Did so late January, and was disappointed. The half-smoke with chili & onions was just “okay,” seemed to be missing some of what they used to taste like. But I love the history of the place, the staff and the stories. Was there one night when the entire place started singing to the jukebox, which was quite an experience.

  • they should open up a place next door to Big Ben Liquors.

  • I can make better chili, and I barely know how to cook!

  • I tend to only go when I have guests in from out of town. But, if you can sit at the counter, the experience is much more enjoyable than just waiting in line to order.

  • Also… their veggie dogs are badass. Seriously some of the best, sadly they do not always have them though.

  • looked at a condo that back deck faced Ben’s. Didn’t buy it, but seems it would always have smelt like chili outside. I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing?

    • I’ve looked at that condo. It will NEVER sell. I have a friend that lives in the 2020 building behind Ben’s, and it does in fact constantly smell of beefy nastiness. Plus, there are so many rats in that back alley, the garbage has to be picked up all of the time, homeless and partiers constantly barfing and urinating in the alley. So so gross.

      Be very very glad you didn’t move into that condo. Would have been a huge mistake.

  • I live at 2020 and can smell it when walking out in the AM to work. Definitely cannot smell it from inside my condo. Since I have lived in DC for so long and I’m so close, I don’t make the line ever, I just walk in, smile to my usual server and that’s it. I love the chilli cheese fries. Ben’s to me is that place you can roll in looking like crap, get a decent meal and can linger in for hours at a time.

    If I were a tourist, I wouldn’t go there either. My parents refuse to go in despite my insistence.

    • You’re luck then. Not to say that it isn’t a nice building (my friend’s apt. is perfectly fine if overpriced for what it is), but if you’re close to the street behind Ben’s Alley, it smells pretty bad in the summer.

      He also said that if you’re higher up, the smell is better, but Ben’s generator keeps people up all night, so I guess in that respect, he’s lucky. For people facing the courtyard, weekend noise is bizarrely amplified by the urinal shape of the building. People on the terrace level get the joy of rats on their decks.

      It seems that if you face V Street or face U on the 4th or higher floor, it’s a pretty great building. Most of the other apartments sound pretty awful.

      I guess, though, if you live on U and 12th, you can only expect to have to deal with awful smells, tons of noise, and smelly beef.

  • I remember first going there in the 1970’s.

    I no longer do.

    Since then, Ben’s Chili Bowl has become:

    0ver cooked, over priced, over crowded, over exposed, over spoken, over written, over reported, over hyped, over celebrated, over fabled, and over done.

  • It’s become an expensive tourist trap and not really a place for locals anymore.

    At Ben’s Chili Bowl one single half smoke hot dog on a bun is over $6 with tax.

    A bowl of chili will set you back another $6.

    Ben’s Chili Bowl is over done.

  • I like Ben’s Chili Bowl, and I think the chili is outstanding. I love the smell, I love the color and texture, and I love the taste.

  • District landmark, sure. It would be nice if DC had more destination spots. I think Ben’s would be a chill place if it weren’t so over priced, over crowded and over hyped. I’m native of NW who has lived in other big cities. I’d feel corny stepping foot in there. $6 for a half smoke? LOL! It’s a tourist & douchebag trap. They are the biggest hustlers on the block. I think their toughest competition would be an Apple store.

  • Geez. The prices are roughly the same as at any other spot in DC with table service. The only place that might be significantly cheaper is that waffle house near Ford’s Theater. Even that little diner in Brookland isn’t cheap anymore.

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