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 one another, and 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. I went to Ben’s recently with a friend and tried the half-smoke for the first time, sans the chili sauce and onions. 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 omitted the chili sauce and onions. Maybe. But I do like Ben's 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 Park, in the Atlas District, and at National Airport.