Review: Ben’s Chili Bowl, Washington, DC

by Cate on March 26, 2012

BCB - Outside
When the kids and I were making plans to visit Washington DC last summer, I did a little bit of online research to make sure we hit a few highlights beyond the monuments and memorials.  Google was my bestie.  And I did like any good foodie would do.  I researched what is a “must eat” in the area.

BCB - Madeline Outside
Ben’s Chili Bowl kept coming up.  My friend Chris knew exactly where it was, and after we did all the monument sight-seeing that Saturday morning, we pulled up right in front for a little snack to take the edge off.  Given its popularity, I wasn’t expecting we’d get lucky with on-street parking.

BCB - Outside
Originally established in 1958, Bill Cosby and President Obama (watch one of his visits here) have named Ben’s Chili Bowl their favorite go-to spot for chili (and Miles Davis, Martin Luther King Jr, and Ella Fitzgerald, among other luminaries, were all known to frequent Ben’s), and it’s been featured on many food-centered tv shows, and even non-food-centered ones.  Mystic just mentioned this weekend that he saw it on Larry the Cable Guy (and Ben’s Chili Bowl mentioned that themselves here).

BCB - Obama Sat Here

BCB - The Rules
The place is small.  You go straight to the back of the restaurant and get in a single file line that snakes up to the front, where you order (and can catch glimpses of the cooks hard at work on the flat-top), and then you progress towards the back again, where you finally pick up your order.

To me, the set-up is a little weird (enter in front, get in line in back, walk to front to order, pick up order in back and exit front).  But that’s just me.  And probably doesn’t operate like that when it’s less busy, if there is such a time.

While you’re in the line, it’s a good opportunity to check out the menu.  Lots of good stuff besides chili.  Fries.  Cheese fries (personal weakness, thank you), hot dogs, burgers, shakes, grilled cheese … you know, healthy stuff.
BCB - Menu

Chris was waiting outside with the kids, and I was up to my own devices to decide what to order.  As when Sarah and I did our food-hop trip last May in Seattle, it was already after lunch time and there was still more to eat in Washington, so I wanted a taste, not a meal.

I settled on chili for Chris and I, cheese fries for all four of us to split, dogs for the kids, and soda.

The line, although overwhelming at first glance, moved fairly quickly.  There were 27 people in front of me, and it took about 15 minutes to get from start to finish.

BCB - Register Area

Not too bad.  Not too bad at all.

And I liked the behind the scenes look at watching the cooks do their thing while I was waiting in line.  I could totally watch that for hours.
BCB - The Flat-Top

BCB - The Dogs

The table space inside is at a premium (and they were also doing a book signing for a local author that day as well), so we ended up getting our food to go and eating in the car (while we attempted an unsuccessful try at getting cupcakes from Georgetown Cupcake; line way too long for just a cupcake, I don’t care how famous they are, so we ended up at Cake Love instead).

BCB - Half-Smokes

BCB - Cheese Fries
The cheese fries were ok, but I wouldn’t get them again.  Just not amazing enough for the calories.

BCB - Chili
The chili, of course, was amazing.  Thick, but not too thick, with a slightly smoky flavor and a definite kick.  Nice and robust. 

I brought back chili for both my Dad (who loves the stuff) and Mystic, even buying a cooler at a local CVS and ice so I could bring it home safely.  I made the mistake of telling my Dad it was a little spicy, at which point it was thrown away without ever being tried.  Unfortunately I didn’t find out until after the fact.

That was a sad moment.

We should pause for a moment of silence.

Mystic, however, loved his.

And the fact that I bought a cooler and ice and brought it back for him during a five hour road trip home might have cemented the fact that “this girl has a thing for food.”

Just sayin’.

BCB - Cake

Upstairs from Ben’s Chili Bowl is a very quiet, small gift shop where you can buy postcards, t-shirts, mugs, key chains and what have you.  The kids bought a key chain and a postcard.  A perfect little memento of our stop at the place where the President likes to go.

BCB - Kids Outside
Well, you know, that and all the pictures I took.

BCB - Steam Smoke
Love this shot. Think it’s my favorite one.

If you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth a stop.  And if you’re not in the area, they’ll even ship you their chili.  If we ever go back, I’m totally getting one of their dogs.   Because that picture is seriously killing me right now.

Ben’s Chili Bowl
1213 U Street, NW between 12th and 13th streets
Washington, DC
Follow them on twitter @benschilibowl

March 26, 2012 – Bonus Photos

yellow fever
We have a few of these name-unknown-to-me bright yellow blooms on our property.  Love, love, love them.  What an awesomely happy way to herald spring.


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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Mic March 26, 2012 at 8:33 pm

The yellow blooms are Forsythia. Arent they beautiful?

Looks like a fun little restaurant!


Patrizia March 26, 2012 at 10:46 pm them !


Joanne March 27, 2012 at 6:25 am

I love it when you go into a take-out place and you see people cooking REAL FOOD in a REAL WAY. Def worth the calories.


Debbie March 27, 2012 at 6:43 am

My husband goes there all the time but I haven’t been there yet. He loves their chili. I’ve heard about the line for Georgetown Cupcakes but I’ve not been there either. A great place to go in Georgetown is a place called Baked and Wired. They have the best cupcakes I have EVER had. And they are huge. If you ever come back down this way, in Old Towne Alexandria there is a bake shop called Firehook. It is wonderful. The only place I can find a real Linzer Cookie around here!


Ramona March 27, 2012 at 11:24 am

I do luv a good chili!


shannon March 29, 2012 at 1:01 pm

I love that you took the time to visit Ben’s — it’s where I take everyone who comes to visit who hasn’t been to DC before. We’ve rubbed elbows with all kinds of folks there, including a member of the DC council who loved my daughter’s chubby baby face.
(Those “dogs,” by the way, are half smokes. And so, so good, especially with chili on top.)


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