Ben’s opened in 1958 and it looks like it, too, with its old-fashioned storefront, Formica counters, and red barstools. 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. You’ll find yourself among a cross-section of locals: by day, workers from nearby municipal office buildings, students, and shoppers; by night, nightclubbers, cops, and neighborhood regulars. Often, it seems that everyone knows everyone else, including the Ali family, who own Ben’s. 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.
Folks go to Ben’s for the homey ambience, and for the ultra-cheap and usually tasty food. Most famous is the half-smoke sandwich, 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. Vegetarians take note: Ben’s has a few veggie-friendly options, like the vegetarian chili. There are locations now at Nationals Park, in the Atlas District, at National Airport and at Capital One Arena.