A friend told me to stop by Ben’s Chili Bowl. I somehow forgot how widely publicized it was that President Obama enjoyed eating there. I must admit, I was a little excited to go to an establishment that the president frequents. I planned on grabbing a quick bite but something about the space and the friendly staff made me want to linger. As a designer, I find myself being obsessed with the latest and greatest in design, the up-to-date finishes, architectural innovations and the creative use of materials and furnishings. The red and white color scheme, the open kitchen, the banquets repaired with duct tape, the lack of any sort of natural finishes. At Ben’s, all the things as designers we are taught to scoff at, were so appealing. Why? This place exudes a simplicity that elegantly reflects a past that often gets overshadowed by the new. While I was enjoying my fries (sorry I don’t eat chili), I realized that we were all fortunate that places like Ben’s open themselves up to the broader community, people of every ethnicity were represented while every staff member was Black. And I appreciated that on the menu, I read, “Black owned and operated since 1958”. On August 22, 1958, Ben and Virginia Ali opened Ben’s Chili Bowl. Reading the rich history of Ben’s sent chills down my spine knowing that the U street corridor was once considered the “Black Broadway”. Many Black celebrities and visionaries like Martin Luther King, Jr, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Nat King Cole hung out at Ben’s. Envisioning this rich history made it all the more appropriate that the owners have preserved this very special place. I enjoyed reading the comments posted as a certain warmth, humor and appreciation of the customers has also been retained. Some of the coments are listed below:
On the menu, near the hot dog selections: Welcome to ben’s chili bowl Our chili will make a hot dog bark
Posted on the kitchen equipment: Who eats for free at Ben’s? Bill Cosby The Obama family But he paid (hand written)
In the bar and banquet seating area in the front as you leave: We love our customers You are the best
Usually when I leave most places, I think about all of the things that I would change about the design, but not here. I am just glad that my friend suggested I drop by. And I highly recommend that you do too when you visit D.C. Ben’s is located at 1213 U Street Northwest, Washington, D.C. Go to the Ben’s Chili Bowl website to find out more about this landmark. Next time I visit I plan to check out Ben’s Next Door, the Ben’s high end spin off which is located, you guessed it, next door to Ben’s.