ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — When he returned from deployment overseas, Air Force Master Sgt. Samoris Hall wanted a special night out, so he bought a bottle of Dom Perignon and took his wife out to Ben's Chili Bowl.
Such is the devotion that many Washingtonians hold for the iconic D.C. restaurant, and it explains why Hall was among hundreds who lined up Thursday for the grand opening of the first new stand-alone Ben's Chili Bowl since Ben and Virginia Ali first opened in the District 55 years ago.
Comedian Bill Cosby, the restaurant's most famous cheerleader, cut the ribbon at Thursday's opening and entertained a crowd of nearly 500, joking that he wants to be buried at nearby Arlington National Cemetery so his ghost can come by for chili half-smokes as it pleases.
"Over in that cemetery, there is no cholesterol. There is no triglycerides. Eat as many as you like. Double down on the cheese and the fries," Cosby said.
For the uninitiated, a half-smoke is a food peculiar to the D.C. area — half pork and half beef, half way between a smoked sausage and a hot dog. Tourists who have been to D.C. but never been to Ben's may have tried a half-smoke from the food trucks that line up outside the Smithsonian and other tourist destinations. But aficionados like Hall say there is no comparison between the limp, steamed sausages served up at the food carts to the ones grilled up at Ben's.
"To me, it's the ultimate hot dog," Hall said. "I don't even consider it a hot dog. ... If it's not dripping in my hand the moment I bite into it, it's not a true half-smoke."
On Thursday, as Hall waited outside in the cold, he planned on eating four chili half-smokes before going back to the office. A D.C. native, he said he has been eating at Ben's since the '60s, when he was just 6 years old. Now retired from the Air Force, he works in the Rosslyn neighborhood where Ben's opened, and said his whole office was excited about the new location.
Ben and Virginia Ali opened their restaurant in 1958 in U Street in the District. It stayed open through race riots in the late '60s that devastated the neighborhood and it has been a keystone in the revitalization of the city's U Street Corridor. Long a D.C. landmark, its status grew stratospheric in 2009 when Barack Obama visited in the days leading up to his inauguration and asked, "What's a half smoke?"
While the restraint is synonymous with the District, Nizam Ali, the youngest son of Ben and Virginia, said he is confident the restaurant can be a success in the suburbs. He said they've gone to great lengths to recreate the feel at the original Ben's — the signage is similar, a mural that pays tribute to the history of Ben's has been painted inside the restaurant, and a jukebox spins out tunes just like the original location.
Ali said Ben's is planning to add a location at Reagan National Airport this spring and at H Street in the District later this year. If the additions are a success, he said, the restaurant may expand even more.