1211 U St
Washington, DC 20009-4465
For anyone who’s actually stuck out a 2-hour, post-midnight line at Ben’s Chili Bowl, the only thing more appetizing than an authentic Ben’s half-smoke at 2 a.m. is an authentic Ben’s half-smoke and a beer.
Enter Ben’s Next Door, a welcome alternative for fans of the original Bowl who don’t always feel like sitting on a picnic table in a puddle of someone else’s mustard. Owners Kamal and Nizam Ali, sons of the notorious “Ben,” hoped to complement their father’s successful dive with an upscale sister restaurant next door to the original. But make no mistake—the only thing “Ben’s” about Ben’s Next Door is the bar menu, which offers Chili Bowl’s world-famous smokes, ‘dogs and burgers alongside an impressive draft list, nine flat-screen TV’s (why?!!!) and a number of clean places to sit.
Ben’s Next Door crackles with energy thanks to a young and trendy U-Street crowd, although the space itself seems conflicted. In the front half of the restaurant, modern flat-screens face a sleek wall of black and white photos that nod to the rich history of the space, once owned by the immortal Jelly Roll Morton. But in the back half of the restaurant, where the pricier menu is served, the warmth of burnt orange walls and a casual “How y’all doin?” staff is undermined by generic, corporate-style décor (didn’t I see those Peace, Love, and Relax signs at Bed Bath & Beyond last week?).
Unfortunately, this decorative imbalance is also reflected in the restaurant’s hit-and-miss menu. While the brined fried chicken with braised kale evoke the bliss of a home-cooked meal in the Deep South, the so-called “perfect” mashed potatoes left this Southern girl grasping for a saltshaker. The seared scallop and mushroom cream sauce appetizer really hit home, but the salmon entrée was overcooked, under-seasoned and altogether unremarkable.
Next to nearby soul-food hotspot Marvin, Next Door’s food doesn’t hold a candle—and don’t expect to find Mr. Obama perched at a back table any time soon. But with a slew of fancy beers and a trapdoor to the Chili Bowl kitchen, this bar will never have to beg for customers.