When is a chili dog not just a chili dog? Answer: When it’s a chili dog from Ben’s Chili Bowl in a Washington D.C. – a U.S. capital landmark that is synonymous with the American civil rights movement dating back to its founding in 1958.
Such is the stature of the colourful diner – located on what was called “the Black Broadway” in the era of segregation – that Barack Obama made an “out of the blue” visit early in his tenure as president, in which he ordered the classic Washington “half-smoke” (sausage) and an ice tea. For the record, the prez insisted on paying for his nosh, even though it was on the house.
My recent visit to the original Ben’s location at 1213 U Street in central Washington (there are now four locations in the D.C. area), was no doubt just marginally less historic than Obama’s, but a rite of passage nonetheless for a visitor to the city, which has included a lengthy list of notable names, ranging from Harry Belafonte to Bono, and Anthony Bourdain to Jimmy Fallon.
For his part, Obama was only the latest historic black leader to visit Ben’s, having been preceded by Martin Luther King.
Founded by Trinidadian-born Ben Ali and wife Virginia in 1958, the establishment is still family-owned and run by the couple’s sons Kamal and Nizam. And it’s still famous for its chili dogs, made with half-smokes, and milkshakes. Timid customers can get a burger or salad, but Nizam says the signature dish is a half-smoke with mustard, onions, and specially spiced chili, the recipe of which is a “secret.”
Nizam grew up working in the restaurant, which has a remarkably colourful history, much of which is remembered through hundreds of wall photos and an exterior mural. Ben’s fed both police and protesters during the Washington riots of 1968. Today, besides celebs and politicians, one might just come across a couple celebrating an anniversary (complete with their own tablecloth and flowers) or getting married (once by a rabbi, no less).
“I sat right here and shared a half-smoke with Bono. It doesn’t get any better than that,” Niza smiled.
Except, perhaps, for sharing a half-smoke with me?
This and That
- How much of the world have you seen? According to TravelSupermarket.com, for the average person it’s only seven per cent. You can determine your own percentage with the web site’s free scratch map. It’s not entirely accurate and a few places (a lot of the Caribbean islands, for example, are missing), but it’s fun. Me? 29 per cent. (www.travelsupermarket.com/en-gb/holidays/adventurous/world-scratch-map/)
- A “retro chic” room renovation is underway at the Flamingo Las Vegas. The US$90 renovation of all 1,270 began this month and will finish next spring. Guests can stay in the first of the new rooms starting in November.
- RIU Hotels and Resorts’ new Riu Dunamar resort is set to open in Playa Mujeres, Mexico, before the end of the year. Available through Signature Vacations, the all-inclusive is found in a “less-travelled corner of Mexico's celebrated Caribbean coastline,” yet just a short drive from Cancun airport.
- Goway has added the luxurious boutique Haumana Cruise to its Idyllic Islands product roster. The 12-cabin yacht sails for three nights between Tahiti and Taha’a and is specially designed for lagoon sailing.
- WestJet Rewards members are being rewarded with 100 WestJet dollars for eligible WestJet Vacations sun packages made by Aug. 31 for travel Nov. 1 to April 30, 2018.
- Clients who book a Transat sun package by Sept. 20 will receive a special benefits package including reduced deposit of $100; $50 future travel voucher; opportunity to modify travel dates up to three hours before departure and one-month free language lessons with the Babbel app. Luxury or Distinction Collection packages also get a Price Drop Guarantee and Option Plus Upgrade. A reduced list of bonuses is available to those who book by Oct. 31. Additional Bonbon rewards points are also available.
- Clients booking a small group exploration tour with Collette through Aug. 8 will save $300 p.p. Tours average 18 people and include authentic culinary experiences, boutique and unique accommodations that truly capture the spirit of the destination, as well as adventures like snorkelling in the Galapagos or visiting an elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka. Offer code EXPLORE17.
- Canadian residents save 25 per cent off prevailing rates as quoted on Disneycruise.com for Verandah, Oceanview, and Inside Staterooms on select seven- or eight-night cruises departing New York City on Oct. 14 and Nov. 18 aboard the Disney Magic. A limited number of cabins are available.
Words of the Week!
- A laughing Nizam Ali, co-owner of the historic Washington D.C. diner Ben’s Chili Bowl, on whether he expects president Donald Trump to follow in the footsteps of predecessor Barack Obama in visiting the historic venue, which has ties to the civil rights movement.