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Half Smoke

December 2, 2009 Leave a comment

Every great city needs its signature eatery.  This should be a place that takes all comers, including the tourists – on whose to-do lists it firmly rests.  It should be greasy, cheap, and preferably have a link to the city’s history.  In short, this restaurant should be a physical summation of what the city is all about.  New York has Gray’s Papaya, Philly has Frank’s Cheesesteaks, and Washington D.C. has Ben’s Chilli Bowl.  That it took me 24 years to be amongst its peeling walls is truly embarrassing.

Ben’s is significant on many fronts – it served as a safe-haven during the ’68 riots, it was the first D.C. establishment visited by a freshly-minted President Obama – but mostly so for what it represents.  Nobody has profited from Ben’s sizable reputation in a way that’s out of step with its essence.  Thus, you won’t find an outpost amongst the polished pillars of the downtown/mall area.  You won’t see Ben’s Chilli Bowl t-shirts being hawked at regional highway rest stops.  It’s not marketing ploy.  It’s just a restaurant where people go to get half smokes (half beef/half sausage link in a bun, most likely smothered in homemade chili and onions) and take in the ambience of the city that birthed it.  Furthermore, Ben’s remains a black establishment.  Sure, we’re all welcome there, but while its quickly-gentrifying U-st neighborhood becomes devoid of color, Ben’s stands proudly as a reminder of what once was.  For better or worse, Ben’s has not seeped beyond the seams of what it is at its core: a humble, neighborhood greasy spoon that has lined the stomachs of Washingtonians, poor and rich alike, free of vanity or pretense for the better part of two generations.

Like most cities, D.C. is beginning to disappear under a thick sludge of classless, race-less, corporate cafeterias – whose only defining characteristic may be as basic as the gaudy, cartoonish sign that rests above the entrance.  Joints like Ben’s are in the fight of their lives.  And as buyouts from Coke and McDonalds become more and more appealing in these trying times, original taste-makers are becoming fewer and far between.  Indeed, my generation stands at the cusp of what could become the great suburbanization of independent gastronomic destinations.  But like all generations at the outset of a potential massacre, we are all now in a position to fight.

Remember, the Chipotle on Beacon Hill is no different than the Chipotle next to Wrigley Field.  We must not forget that a dollar spent at the independent haunt, is a dollar donated to the overall identity of that city.  We may not be able to bring down the giants of corporate America, but we most certainly can keep our mom and pop’s around to remind them of how it’s done.

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