There’s no better place to honor America’s love of history and hot dogs than Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C. While there are fine establishments across the lands, there are a few iconic and important places as Ben’s. I’m thinking Pink’s in Los Angeles, Original Nathan’s in Coney Island, Weiner Circle in Chicago and Rutt’s Hut in New Jersey. Although, they can’t lay claim of hosting Martin Luther King, Jr.
Before I bring up the Cosby situation, let’s just focus on the chili dogs, or the “chili half-smoke” as they call it. It’s not your traditional long and thin hot dog, it’s a quarter pound half-beef, half-pork smoked sausage topped with mustard, onions and their secret spicy homemade chili sauce. That sauce is ambrosia of the gods. The sausage has a meaty density with the perfect snap when you bite into it. Hands down, best chili dog EVER!
One of the half-smokes will suit you fine, two will make you postpone your next meal for eighteen hours.
The establishment has a “Please don’t change” decor where you know the joint looked the same as did in 1958. The only things that have probably changed is the music on the jukebox, the prices and the addition of the healthy menu. I bet you that was Michele Obama’s insistence.
As with most popular places, seats and tables fill up quickly and lines tend to snake in awkward formations. My crew got there at noon and got an open booth. If we got there ten minutes later we would have waited in a line 20 deep. Luckily for all, the staff is super nice, upbeat and enthusiastic.
It’s a must to wander around to see all the celebrities. You got Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chris Rock, Chris Tucker and who’s who of local sports legends. Looming over them all is President Obama, who eats for free. Heck, if you are the leader of the free world, a $5.95 half-smoke on the house is a good deal.
Which brings us to the other person who eats free, Bill Cosby. If I were him, I wouldn’t show up for his freebie. I didn’t want to bring up the Cos subject with anybody at the staff or gift shop. It puts them in an awkward situation when there’s a can’t-miss mural of him and the President.
A few articles from the Washington Post chronicles founder Ben Ali’s family’s relationship with the comedian. Cosby would come to Ben’s when he was in the Navy in the late 50s. He took his future wife, Camille, on dates to Ben’s. Through out the years, Cosby held public events at U Street. The Post quotes him: “I want my body buried not far” in Arlington National Cemetery, Cosby joked, “so my ghost can get up, make the trip here instead of flying all the way over to U Street.”
Well, things are different now, don’t you think? Ali isn’t around to see the four new locations since his passing in 2009. U Street, which was torn apart by the 1968 race riot after MLK’s assassination, is a vibrant community with trendy bars and bistros. I believe they call this gentrification, and when somebody explains what hell is gentrification I’m sure I’ll be able to give an informed opinion.
From Wikipedia: During the riots, black activist Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, asked Ben to keep his restaurant open and the Alis obtained permission to stay open past curfew. The restaurant fed both the police officers and firemen working to impose order on the neighborhood, as well as the black activists. The violence and arson reached such an extent that Ben wrote “Soul Brother” in soap on the front window in the hopes that it would stop the angry mobs.
For now, the Ali Family remains silent on the whether to remove the mural at the original location or scale back the Cosby pictures. That’s a tough call. You read about how close the family was to Cosby and how with his support, the business thrived.
Unfortunately, the Cos is toxic and what we grew up knowing about America’s Dad is a lie. The family remaining mum can only last so long.
I say be transparent. The family should explain what Cosby meant to them. That would be in the past tense. Acknowledge the disappointment and that future businesses won’t be associated with the man.
As for the mural, we redo it with Obama and original founder Ben Ali.