Like 2Amys, we've written a lot (see our favorite restaurants, Nationals Park, and our tribute to Ben Ali) about Ben's Chili Bowl, but haven't gotten around to doing an official TwoDC-style review. You've probably heard about Ben's being a DC institution and surviving in its current location for over 50 years through riots and Metro construction. What you might be wondering is whether the food is actually any good. With some "landmark" restaurants, you pay for the atmosphere and suffer through the food. While some may disagree (including my culinary hero Tom Sietsema), I think the food at Ben's is great. By great I mean tummy-warming, comfort food great not Voltaggio brothers fancy pants great.
When you arrive at Ben's you're likely to see this:
Yes, be ready to wait in line. Usually, the line goes really quickly and you'll be scarfing down your half smoke in no time. On our last visit, we arrived just before shift change time (7:00 pm) and the service was slooooooooow. The staff leaving at 7pm basically stopped working at 6:55pm and the 7pm staff didn't start really moving until about 7:05pm. But if you have to wait in line, Ben's is a pretty fun place to wait. The atmosphere is joyful and the music is rockin'.
Ben's has a pretty extensive menu (including breakfast on the weekend), but when you go for the first time, you should order the half smoke "all the way." That means you'll be getting a half smoke (half pork/half beef sausage) topped with mustard, onions, and Ben's famous chili. It's served with a side of potato chips that I usually skip over in favor of the chili cheese fries (more on those later). If you don't eat pork, they have all-beef hot dogs. If you don't eat hot dogs, they have burgers. If you're a vegetarian, they have veggie chili. If you still can't find something to eat, go somewhere else.
Ben's isn't the place for sticking to your diet or your quest to eat naturally. Ben's is the place for good old fashioned comfort food. Speaking of comfort food . . . I present Ben's chili cheese fries. I can hear the angels singing every time I look at this photo. You won't believe this after reading our blog, but B and I tend to eat very healthfully most of the time (we don't post about the stuff we eat when we're not eating out). We're both fairly thin and healthy people, BUT we have a serious weakness for Ben's chili cheese fries. If you're looking to splurge, this is the way to go.
Speaking of weakness, I also love Ben's cake. I've been told that they don't make it in-house, but I don't care whose house it is made in... it's tasty! I usually take the cake home and eat it later because after a half smoke and chili cheese fries I can barely move. The cake is awesome even when eaten the next day.
In closing, here's an open letter to D.C.'s most beloved establishment:
Sometimes you make my tummy hurt and you make my favorite jeans a little too tight, but I love you.
Second Thoughts from B
Whether you like greasy spoons or not, whether you like hot dogs and chili or not, whether you like happiness or not, you have to experience Ben's Chili Bowl before you can consider your time in D.C. complete. Period. End of story.
I would say that a visit to Ben's is a must simply based on the history and cultural relevance of the place (read more here). But the reason we keep coming back is not the atmosphere and the experience, it's the food.
As J alluded to, sometimes you experience a place in spite of the food. Not at Ben's. I've eaten my fair share of hot dogs in my lifetime and this one is the best. Thick, juicy, and packed with flavor, a naked half-smoke would be worth a trip. Then you add the famous chili. Rich and thick (and happily without beans), it adds just enough kick to make it interesting. Add chili cheese fries, cake, creamy milkshakes, and you've found caloric nirvana.