Can Ben’s Chili Bowl Expand and Keep Its Soul?Mar 18th, 2014 | By owner | Category: All Posts
By 3:30 p.m. the day after Ben’s Chili Bowl opened its new location in Rosslyn last week, the line still stretched to the very back of the restaurant. It’d been that way, if not curving down the sidewalk, since 11 a.m., said co-owner Nizam Ali, when a crowd was already waiting for the doors to be unlocked.
That much it has in common with the historic U Street NW locale, which even now seems to draw a crowd no matter what hour of the day. But the new spot feels more like an ode to Ben’s Chili Bowl than Ben’s Chili Bowl itself. A photo and text display as long as the line details the history of Ben’s, like a Smithsonian exhibit, from 1958 when “a landmark is born” to the place’s perseverance through the 1968 riots and construction of the U Street Metro, which shut down fellow businesses, to the 2009 visit from President-elect Barack Obama. On the opposite wall are photos of the many celebrities who’ve visited the flagship Ben’s over the years—Bono, Anthony Bourdain, Danny Glover, Jesse Jackson—just like at 12th and U. Except instead of the originals in mismatched frames, the replicate images are neatly clustered on placards.
The overall look is like a Ben’s without the wear (or the patina) of the years. The new restaurant has similar tables and glittery red chairs from the same company that produced the originals. An electronic jukebox, rather than an old-school one, plays Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye. Even the lighting somewhat mimics the fluorescent glow of the original.
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