Ben's Chili Bowl will begin serving half-smokes at its largest location yet on Wednesday. A full-service dining area on the second floor and a rooftop bar are coming in the next two to three months.
Like the Rossyln location that opened last year, the newest Ben's has framed photos of bold face names who've visited the original outpost over the years as well as a timeline on the wall of the restaurant's history. Notably missing is Bill Cosby, whose image is prominently featured on a similar timeline at the Rosslyn location. The TV star, who has been the subject of multiple rape allegations, admitted to obtaining drugs to give to sexual targets, according to court documents, the Associated Press reported yesterday.
Co-owner Nizam Ali declined to comment on anything related to Cosby, including whether the longtime Ben's patron will continue to eat free. The restaurant has long had a policy that Cosby, whose face is painted on the side of the U Street location, is the only person who eats for free. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the Obama family was also added to that exclusive list. Cosby was also present at a ribbon-cutting for the Rosslyn opening. Ali declined to comment on whether Cosby was invited to tomorrow's ribbon-cutting ceremony, which will feature the Chuck Brown Band and Mayor Muriel Bowser.
The menu on the street level floor is pretty much the same as it is at Ben's other locations. The restaurant will open as early as 6 a.m. with offerings like hot cakes and egg sandwiches. Half-smokes, burgers, and bowls are all still there, along with soft-serve for dessert. The main difference between the iconic U Street NW location and the H Street NE spot is that its shiny and new with sparkly red chairs and a flatscreen TV. (And there's no jukebox.)
"You have to stay current to a certain degree and you can't totally be a dinosaur in the world," says Nizam Ali, son of founder Ben Ali, who passed away in 2009. "It's kind of phony when you totally fake old and you just make it look like the 1950s."
Ali isn't revealing much about the plans for upstairs just yet, but he says it will be kind of like the difference between Ben's Chili Bowl and Ben's Next Door on U Street NW. "It will look very, very different... something that people maybe won't expect from Ben's," Ali says. An outdoor patio is also in the works.
The new spot may not have the patina of the original, but the Ali family aims to get it there. "We own the building, so we hope to be that great anchor," Nizam Ali says. "We hope to be here 50-plus years or longer."
Ben's Chili Bowl, 1001 H St. NE; benschilibowl.com
Photos by Jessica Sidman