President-elect Obama had lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl this afternoon, a legendary DC landmark that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. The visit was about way more than just great grub: It was loaded with symbolism. Joined by District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty, Mr. Obama ordered the house specialty, a Chili Half-Smoke, which is a quarter-pound half pork and beef smoked sausage on a steamed bun with mustard, onions and chili sauce. He also tucked into Chili-topped french fries and ice tea. (Above: The President-elect, center; Fenty is at left)
Ben's has been a gathering place for community and political action since it first opened in 1958 by Virginia and Ben Ali, when Washington was still legally segregated. It's on U Street, in an old theater, on what used to be called Black Broadway, due to all the local artistic venues. Jazz greats Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis were regulars. As was Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ben's managed to survive the devastating riots and fires that erupted in DC in 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was the only restaurant in the area that stayed open during the turmoil, and was simultaneously feeding the activist members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and District firefighters and police officers. It also survived through a couple decades when DC was a drug-addled wasteland, but the area has now become gentrified with urban renewal and historic association action. (Above: Eating with Fenty)
Today, Ben's is closely allied with Teaching For Change, an activist non-profit that promotes the teaching of social justice in the classroom. Teaching For Change develops curriculum materials for teachers and students that helps them "question and re-think the world inside and outside their classrooms, build a more equitable, multicultural society, and become active global citizens."
Mayor Fenty endorsed Mr. Obama pretty early in Election Season, on July 17, 2008, on the condition that he fight to give DC full congressional voting rights if he won, according to David Nakamura of Washington Post. The District has always been a kind of shadowland: It has no voice in the national government, even though the national government is run from the confines of its land.
It's excellent that Mr. Obama's first public restaurant outing in Washington was to a joint that's entirely of the people, and also very historic. It's now stop #1 on the DC Chowbama Tour.
*Ben's is located at 1213 U Street N.W., Washington, DC 20009. Phone (202) 667-0909. They're open 'til 2:00 AM most nights.
*Ben's has a a 50th anniversary book available for purchase here; part of the proceeds go to Teaching For Change.
*Mr. Obama's own Family Chili recipe is here.
Update: In the NY Times The Caucus blog, Marian Burros and Ashley Southall report that Ben's owner Nizam Ali has been expecting a visit from Mr. Obama, and he'd invited the President-elect to come by long ago, to get to know the U Street locals, so he'd feel at home in the District.
“Hopefully, the Obamas will take ownership of Washington as their home and they’ll come to Ben’s,” Ali said. “I know it’ll happen.”
Pic is Mr. Obama at Ben's with 10-month-old Zora Anne Smith.
*Photos by AP/Gerald Herbert