Ben’s Upstairs

August, 2016.

I was driving back from Front Royal, VA, the gateway to the Shenandoah National Park, when I got an unexpected call from a long-time restaurateur friend.

“Manuel, it’s great to hear from you. How’s the Iguina family?”

“Wife and kids are fine. We’re launching a new restaurant theme on H Street.”

“Really, Latin, Puerto Rican?”

“Neither one, I just got hired as the Director of Operations by Ben’s Chili Bowl.”

“Wow, chili and half-smokes – a local legacy. Congrats!”

“Yes, it’s a true iconic symbol, but we’ll be focusing on a totally different cuisine – Southern with a twist of Caribbean.”

“Sweet my friend, on U Street?”

“No, above the new location on 1001 H Street – we’ll be changing its name from Ten 01 to Ben’s Upstairs in “a few weeks.”

That makes a helluva lot of sense. The Ben’s name holds a massive amount of clout. What worked on U Street with Ben’s and Ben’s Next Door should work on H.”

“Yes, we’re thrilled beyond belief, and I would love for you to join our team.”

The following week, I met with Nizam Ali, owner and Vice Chair of the Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation; Manuel and his Chef who hails from North Carolina, Quinton Mitchell. We formulated a plan to photograph their space and savory dishes, develop a website theme that captures their unique character and aggressively market the space to locals and tourists.

“H Street Fest is the biggest block party in D.C.,” Nizam asserted. “We want to launch Upstairs in conjunction with the Festival and hope that people from all over come in and sample our cuisine and experience our renowned, timeless brand.”

Similar to the iconic lunch counter on U Street with Ben’s Next Door, a historical American restaurant, Ben’s Upstairs featured a full service bar as well as a covered rooftop space offering stunning sunset views.

H Street was once a thriving economic corridor. But after the ’68 riots, the area was devastated. Similarly, U Street was ravaged to ruins after the riots. Businesses were damaged and smoldered, but Ben’s Chili Bowl stayed opened even through the many nights of curfew. Ben’s fed first responders and black activists, and served as a peaceful gathering place and safe haven for all.

Kay’s Jewelers and Morton’s Department Store burned down during April 1968 riots. Overall, more than 1,100 buildings in D.C. were damaged and the middle-class fled to the suburbs to seek safety and open space. People did not return for 20 years, and it wasn’t until the start of the 21st century that people began to invest in their community and redevelop the battered corridor.

That’s why Ben’s Chili Bowl is such a revered landmark. President Obama and national celebrities frequently dropped by to grab a bite, and for many world leaders, it’s a rite of passage after visiting the White House.

“Our slogan is Southern-influenced cuisine food with a hint of Caribbean flavors,” Nizam announced.

“Fried oysters Po-Boy with citrus aioli, fried green tomato BLT with ancho chile lime mayo, jerked salmon and lobster roll with arugula and roasted peppers, whole fried snapper served with coconut mojo are our featured dishes,” Quinton revealed. “And Manuel also assists since he’s from the enchanting island of PR.”

“Also love the stuffed yucca and green plantains as well as the mac ‘n’ cheese studded with crawfish,” Manuel shared.

“My father Ben was born in Trinidad and my mother Virginia is from Southern Virginia. We want our new menu to reflect the Ben’s family roots,” Nizam remarked.

“And the drinks are very much Latin/Caribbean featuring Bacardi mint Mojitos, Mezcal Margaritas, and Stoli Raspberry Sangrias,” Manuel informed. “Very comparable to my Little San Juan.”

“Thanks for all this timely information. I need to ask for a favor. “I have a friend who just arrived from Jamaica. Can you get her a job?”

“If she has a green card, she’ll fit right in,” Manuel replied. “And BTW, will you be inviting food bloggers like you did at Mio?”

“Super idea — food bloggers and social media influencers.”

[ Image: Orlando Darden.png ]

Orlando Darden Jr.  @Ben’s Upstairs

Who me also a food model? Well when my good friend Chito invites me to join him as he samples a new restaurant’s menu, what else can I say but YES! At the two weeks old new #benschillibowl on H St. As I sample the variety of dishes, all I can think is that this restaurant has transcended it’s legendary staple of #chillihotdogs and fries! Very satisfied with the experience.

On Saturday, Sept 17, during the H Street Festival, Ben’s Chili Bowl welcomed eaters and spectators to the 4th Annual Half Smoke Eating Contest.

Tens of thousands streamed along the 11-block corridor looking to taste wholesome food and experience diverse culture and fun.

Half Smoke Eating Contest

What is unique about the D.C. half smoke?  Is it because it’s half pork and half beef?  Or is it Ben’s original spice mix that is a well-kept family secret. Or maybe because it’s grilled on both sides on a hot griddle until perfectly charred. Whatever the reason, the sausage placed on a lightly steamed bun, dowsed with yellow mustard, sprinkled with chopped white onions and smothered with the famous, generation-old chili sauce has become D.C.’s signature dish.

As usual, Virginia Ali, the Matriarch of the D.C. restaurant world, was busy running the restaurant, cooking half smokes and cleaning tables.

Eight lucky participants got to enjoy the sweet, smoky half smokes, grilled to perfection, to see who could consume them the fastest.

Mary Jones set a local record by devouring eight half-smokes in eight minutes — a feat that could put Joey Chestnut to shame.

[ Image: Screen-Shot-2022-02-21-at-8.56.57-PM-1024×557.png ]

Vida Ali congratulates Mary Jones for winning the Half Smoke Eating Contest.

Ben’s stage also showcased some of D.C.’s hottest local artists such as Rare Essence, Ozone, Renee and Wooty 95

After the contest and concert, fans filed into Ben’s to grab a chili dog with chili cheese fries or Upstairs to grab a Southern Caribbean sandwich paired with a Mojito. 

A beautiful, full-figured woman with long, black hair and a thick, rich accent served me a Caribe cupcake with a Red Stripe.

[ Image: Kiomey Ben’s Upstairs.png ]

Kamara @ Ben’s Upstairs

“Thank you kindly Kimara. What a great time for you to start working here.”

“I’ll swing by shortly to see if you want another one.”

“Thanks, but one beer is all I’m gonna have today.”

“What are you on a diet?”

“I’m trying to taper off, and attending these events and festivals ain’t making it any easier.”

The festival was amazing and the launch was a smashing success. Now it was time to stroll down the avenue to watch other local talents and dancers perform. Cheers to H Street!  This community has become a veritable playground for foodies and art and music aficionados alike.

I wanted to remain in this vibrant city and enjoy all the perks she had to offer — her culture, the restaurant scenes, the melting pot — but part of me told me it was time to move head west towards the mountains and valleys, where I would find respite and healing.

Ben’s Upstairs looking out at the western sky