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Washington DC - Shaw - U Street Corridor: Ben's Chili Bowl - Half Smokes

Ben's Chili Bowl, at 1213 U Street, has been an integral part of the U Street Corridor since it was founded in 1958 by husband and wife team Ben and Virginia Ali. The restaurant is located in the former Minnehaha, Washington's first silent movie house, which was established in 1911. Ben's was frequented by both police and protesters during the 1968 Washington, D.C. riots, and is regularly visited by celebrities, most famously Bill Cosby. Then-President-elect, Barack Obama, stopped into Ben's for lunch when he first arrived in his new hometown. Scenes from the films The Pelican Brief and State of Play were filmed in the restaurant.


Ben's signature dish is the Original Chili Half-Smoke, a favorite of Cosby's since the early 1960's. The 1/4 pound half-pork, half-beef half-smoke, a sausage similar to the hot dog, but larger, spicier and with more coarsely ground meat, is grilled, served on a warm steamed bun and topped with mustard, onions and a spicy homemade beef chili con carne. The etymology of "half-smoke" is debated, as the sausage is not always smoked. It may instead refer to the practice of cutting the sausage in half when grilling, or that many half-smokes are 50/50 beef and pork. The "original" half smoke is considered to be the sausage distributed by D.C.'s Briggs and Co. meatpackers, originating in around 1950, though Raymond Briggs started selling his half-smokes circa 1930


The greater U Street Historic District, roughly bounded by New Hampshire Avenue, Florida Avenue, 6th Street, R Street and 16th Street, in the Shaw neighborhood of northwestern Washington DC, is largely a Victorian-era neighborhood, made up of row houses constructed in response to the city's high demand for housing following the Civil War and the growth of the federal government in the late 19th century. The area was predominately white and middle class until 1900, but as Washington became progressively more segregated, the U Street Corridor emerged as the city's most important concentration of businesses and entertainment facilities owned and operated by blacks, becoming known as "Black Broadway" in its cultural heyday. The late 1960's saw the neighborhood begin a fall into decline, marred by violence and drug tacking, that would last well into the revitalization and gentrification of the 1990's.


Greater U Street Historic District National Register #98001557 (1998)


Ben's Chili Bowl was featured on the Travel Channel show, Man Vs. Food (Episode 20)

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Taken on June 7, 2009