Ben’s opened in 1958 and it looks like it, too, with its old-fashioned storefront, Formica counters, and red bar stools. Its staying power is impressive enough, but Ben’s history is also compelling: When riots broke out throughout the city following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, Ben’s stayed open to serve police officers, firefighters, and anyone who needed sustenance, even as surrounding establishments closed or were destroyed.
On that basis alone, a visit to Ben’s is warranted, and some locals do continue to stop by out of an ongoing respect for the place, and for the Ali family who own it. Walls are hung with photographs that cover the history of the city and of Ben’s, and include snapshots of the many celebrities who’ve dined here, from President Obama to Mary J. Blige.
Of course, most folks go to Ben’s for the food, which is ultra cheap and usually tasty. Most famous is the half-smoke sandwich, which is a 1/4-pound, half-beef, half-pork smoked sausage, served inside a warm bun, and, if you so desire, smothered with mustard, chopped onions, and a spicy chili sauce. I went to Ben’s recently with a friend and tried the half-smoke for the first time. And though it is near sacrilege in this city to admit it, I didn’t care for it. My friend, who ordered the half-smoke plus cheese fries, says it’s because I chose not to top off my half-smoke with the chili sauce and onions. Maybe. What I enjoy most at Ben’s are other items on the menu, like the flavorful turkey burger sub and the vegetarian chili (vegetarians take note: Ben’s has a few veggie-friendly options). Ben’s has locations now at Nationals Ballpark and at National Airport.
- Elise Hartman Ford