Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I ate like a president

Ben's Chili Bowl is an institution in Washington, DC. BELOW LEFT: Barack Obama chows down on a half-smoke. BELOW RIGHT: Sign at Attman's Deli in Baltimore.

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
May/June, 2010

For many years, a sign was posted behind the counter at a landmark restaurant in a black neighbourhood in Washington, DC. It read: “Who eats free at Ben’s — Bill Cosby.”

In 1958, Ben Ali and his wife Virginia opened a modest eatery on U Street N.W., a commercial strip in those days known as the Black Broadway in a city still segregated. Plenty of famous entertainers could be found at Ben’s Chili Bowl — Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, and Nat King Cole. Martin Luther King, Jr. chowed down here, too. The lineups were longest from midnight to 4 a.m.

Cosby came more often than most. He was a friend, making it a point to visit the establishment after a performance. Cosby even courted a comely co-ed at Ben’s proposing to Camille Hanks in the restaurant on their sixth date.

Two decades later, in 1985, Cosby celebrated the success of his hit television sitcom with an event held on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. A grateful owner pledged Cosby would never again pay for a hot dog covered with chili, the house speciality, or whatever else he cared to eat.
And so the question of credit and dining at Ben’s remained unchanged for many, many years.

Until Barack Obama paid a visit. Ten days before his inauguration, the U.S. president-elect dropped by Ben’s for a famous half-smoke with chili sauce. He also made a good-natured request about the availability of Pepto-Bismol.

The owner soon after altered the sign. When I visited last summer, it read:

Who eats free at Ben’s:
Bill Cosby
The Obama family.

Underneath, someone had written in hand: “But HE PAID.”

I figured if Ben’s was good enough for the president of the United States of America, who can eat wherever he pleases, then it’d be good enough for me.

Knowing where to eat when out of town can be a dilemma. So, while on a budget tour of New York, Baltimore and Washington last summer, the limitless choice of dining establishments was narrowed by a determination to chow down in restaurants visited at least once by a future or former or, best yet, sitting president. So, I ended up eating soul food near Harlem, pastrami in Baltimore, and a killer hamburger in the capital, while also bending an elbow at a bar with stuffed animal heads said to have been bagged by Theodore Roosevelt.

Joined by my friend, Bob Krieger, an editorial cartoonist with the Vancouver Province, we set out from our dingy room at a midtown Manhattan hotel for a taste of barbecue and Southern soul food at Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too. Located just west of the north end of Central Park, the restaurant is a favourite of students at nearby Columbia University. It also is patronized by Bill Clinton, a man known for his appetites, gastronomic and otherwise. Clinton, who established an office in Harlem after leaving the White House, has indulged his fondness for the area’s soul food restaurants. The Arkansan favors the “Miss Mamie Sampler” of shrimp, chicken, and short ribs.

We arrived just before noon. The restaurant was empty. No customers. No waitress. An ominous sign.

The server soon appeared from the kitchen. She told us they were out of seafood gumbo, which seemed odd considering the time of day and lack of clientele. We ordered a chopped barbecue sandwich and fried chicken.

A red-and-white checkerboard pattern dominates the room, which is filled with Formica tables and padded chairs, giving a diner feel. The menu includes oxtails, smothered pork chops, and Louisiana catfish with such traditional, rib-sticking side dishes as candied yams, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese.

As we waited, the restaurant began to fill. Our orders did the job — we had found a Southern oasis at the Manhattan junction of the Upper West Side, Morningside Heights, and Harlem. A good first stop.

Baltimore is the world capital of crab cakes and we struck gold at J.W. Faidley Seafood, a counter with no seating at the Lexington Market. The All-Lump Crab Cake was a lightly battered plate of gastronomic heaven. Unbeatable. Don’t know if any presidents have eaten at Faidley’s, which has been a family-owned business in the market since 1886, but they did make crab cakes for the crew of the Space Shuttle.

Before the white flights of the 1960s, Baltimore boasted a Corned Beef Row of delicatessens. Today, Attman’s remains a lonely outpost. Order cafeteria-style from a huge menu — among the goofy combination sandwiches are the Tongue Fu, the Lox O’Luck, and the Gay Liveration — and kill the time in line by checking out the fantastic, hand-painted signs.

In the Kibitz Room, we picked a table overlooked by a framed photograph of Jimmy Carter enjoying a sandwich. Our pastrami was good, but not worth an excursion. Unexpected bonus — free parking in the vacant lot next door.

In the movie “State of Play,” a reporter portrayed by Russell Crowe is about to order at the counter inside Ben’s Chili Bowl when he discovers his attache case has been stolen. It’s a neat scene capturing the discombobulation one feels when ordering at a diner when everyone else is a regular and knows the menu by heart.

Ben’s is a District of Columbia institution. In the fierce hours following the heartbreaking assassination of Dr. King, who himself had enjoyed Ben’s, the Ali family kept their doors open while all around burned. The owners thought it important to keep nourished firefighters and policemen, a brave kindness undoubtedly taken advantage of by a hungry rioter, or two. After all, everybody eats at Ben’s.

On our visit, I went with the Original Chili Half-Smoke, a spicy hot dog with an outer casing grilled to blackness (but not burnt), covered with a molten sea of chili. It was delicious and surprisingly satisfying. No wonder Obama made a pit stop.

Another black-owned institution is the Florida Avenue Grill, a not-so-greasy spoon with booths and a long counter overlooking a crackerjack short-order cook. Like Ben’s, the restaurant survived the 1968 riots that devastated DC neighbourhoods. (The owner stood in the front door with a shotgun.) We went with a standard bacon and eggs breakfast with side dishes of grits and greens, a filling way to open a day to be filled with sightseeing.

The walls are filled with autographed photos, including such dignitaries as Rev. Al Sharpton and Supreme Court Justice Thomas Clarence. Obama ate here while serving in the Senate.

Each night in the capital we retired to the Old Ebbett Grill, sidling up to a bar over which started the unblinking heads of stuffed creatures such as a walrus, a gazelle, and a warthog. The poor creatures are thought to have been bagged as trophies by Teddy Roosevelt.

It was at the bar that we plotted our final stop, an out-of-the-way eatery with no sign in a strip mall across the Potomac in Arlington, Va. It took some time to find Ray’s Hell-Burger, opened by chef Michael Landrum, a prominent steakhouse owner, but the hunt came with a reward — a 10-ounce burger of prime rib cooked as we wished. (We went with recommended, a warm red centre, though we could have had “mooing” or “cooked throughout.”) Bacon, fine cheeses, even guacamole are offered as toppings, but the quality of the meat makes adornment unnecessary. Each table is outfitted with a paper-towel dispenser, a requirement for juicy burgers, quite simply the best I’ve ever had from a commercial establishment.

No wonder Obama and Joe Biden crashed the joint shortly after taking office.

After downing my burger and cleaning up as best as possible, I was left with the entirely satisfying thought about my week-long excursion.

I had eaten like a president.

Barack Obama, accompanied by Joe Biden, orders a sandwich last year at Ray's Hell Burgers in Arlington, Va.

Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too
366 W. 110th St., New York, N.Y.
BBQ and Southern soul

1019 East Lombard St., Baltimore, Md.

J.W. Faidley
203 North Place St., Lexington Market, Baltimore, Md.
Heavenly crab cakes. No seating.

Ben’s Chili Bowl
1213 U St., NW, Washington, DC
Hot dogs slathered in chili. Heart attack on a plate. Surprisingly satisfying.

Florida Avenue Grill
1100 Florida Ave., NW, Washington, DC
Greasy spoon with a terrific short-order cook.

Old Ebbitt Grill
675 15th St. NW, Washington, DC,
Saloon with oysters and steaks.

Ray’s Hell Burger
1713 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va.
Hamburgers. Killer toppings. No fries.
No website.