WASHINGTON – When a restaurant reaches iconic status, customer service usually beats a hasty retreat as soon as the tourists begin pouring in the door.
In 2008, I went to Harry’s Bar in Venice to have a Bellini so I could say I had a Bellini at Harry’s Bar. In retrospect, this was a foolish, touristy thing to do, and someone who spent his high school years among the fanny-pack wearing visitors to the greater Orlando area should have known better. But I was delirious from a transatlantic flight, and I wanted a damn Bellini, even if it cost 15 Euros and even if I could buy a gallon jug of the drink at the train station for the same price. After waiting like a dupe at the bar for 15 minutes, the bartender finally deigned to acknowledge my presence. “Prego?” he asked, his voice dripping with menace. I ordered. He slid four overpriced, watered-down drinks at me. I paid. Our transaction – and my experience – was complete.
Fortunately for the denizens of our nation’s capital, one of its iconic joints hasn’t forgotten that a smile and the occasional James Brown sing-along go a long way. Ben’s Chili Bowl has been around long enough and grown famous enough to treat its customers like dirt and still do a booming business, but co-founder Virginia Ali and her staff simply refuse to allow that sort of boorish behavior in their establishment. It also doesn’t hurt that Ben’s serves the best chili dog I’ve eaten.
I visited Ben’s on Labor Day, and the line snaked through most of the front room. The Godfather of Soul blasted through the speakers. Behind the counter, one worker hit every “Heeeeeey!” in Superbad as he juggled multiple orders. Then, when the mix shuffled to Sade, he traded funk for Smooth Operation without forgetting a single “no onions” or “extra cheese.” He treated every customer as he would have treated Bill Cosby – Ben’s most ardent fan – or Barack Obama – Ben’s most famous recent diner.
Ben’s offers chili burgers, standard chili dogs and chili cheese fries, but just skip everything else and load up on chili half-smokes. The half-smoke is a half-pork, half-beef link that makes other hot dogs taste like the byproduct-loaded gut bombs they are. The half-smoke’s casing delivers the perfect snap, and the larger, bolder half-smoke has enough flavor to stand up to Ben’s chili.
Ben’s chili is special because the folks at Ben’s don’t kowtow to the blandness of the masses. When producing food in large quantities, restaurants often neuter their recipes so they don’t offend the worthless sacks of flesh who can’t handle a spicy kick. The result? Everyone has to eat boring food. Ben’s isn’t worried about your co-worker’s sensitive tummy. Your chili will tickle your taste buds instead of simply sliding down your throat. This is only fair, since any chili dog is going to cause issues later. It needs to taste great to offer a fair return on the investment of significant porcelain time later.
The half-smokes aren’t cheap. They run just north of $5. That’s almost too much, but think of it this way. The steak you get for $12 at Outback doesn’t taste like the steak you get for $55 at Ruth’s Chris. Ben’s is the Ruth’s Chris of chili dogs.
But as special as the chili dogs are, what makes Ben’s truly great is the fact that Miss Virginia still works the dining room the way she did when she and her late husband, Ben, opened the place in 1958 with a $5,000 investment. On Labor Day, Miss Virginia greeted every single customer who sat down to dine. She thanked old customers. She welcomed new ones.
She didn’t have to do that. Ben’s is such a landmark that Miss Virginia could sit back, count the money and only show up when Adam Richman or Guy Fieri come in with cameras in tow. But she doesn’t. She understands the chili half-smokes can get people in the door, but she can keep them coming back.
Pre-meal workout: Five-mile run around monuments in D.C. Monuments visited: Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, FDR Memorial, Jefferson Memorial.
Featured workout tune: I Will Not Bow by Breaking Benjamin. (Which quite appropriately played as I reached the statue of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence.)