Washington DC

Why Washington DC's Iconic Half-Smoke Is More Than Just a Hot Dog

Ben's Chili Bowl
Ben’s Chili Bowl
Ben’s Chili Bowl
DCity Smokehouse
DCity Smokehouse
DCity Smokehouse

What is a half-smoke?

While there’s no formal recipe, half-smokes are typically a combination of ground pork and beef stuffed into a natural casing. They are smoky and spicy, and have more of a bite than your standard, incredibly uniform, emulsified dog. For some, the most important feature is the heat. “The real difference is, it’s spicier,” says Eric Mittenthal, president of the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council. “That’s the one thing that sets it apart.”

Many food writers describe DC as not having a “culinary identity” or having one that has only recently arrived. The half-smoke side steps that entire debate. Most half-smokes sold in the city are just marketed as a delicious sausage — not the food that ends debates about all food in DC ever. And that’s why it works.
 
But some local culinary figures have questioned whether half-smokes are actually any good. If you generally like sausage, but don’t like half-smokes, you probably just haven’t had a good one with the right toppings. However, its critics are missing the point. In a town that struggles for basic representation, a half-smoke is more than a cheap meal. It’s a reminder that DC is a city itself, not just the nation’s capital. There are things that make this city unique, not just merely the background of political dramas. Like the half-smoke, you either appreciate the character and flavor of the District, or you haven’t gotten to know it at all.

To explain what makes the half-smoke so intrinsically linked to the identity of DC, you have to look at its history. Though people have tried to theorize, the origin of its name remains a mystery. Some have speculated that it’s a sausage only smoked halfway — though that theory doesn’t carry much weight. Others say it’s because the sausage is made with a 50/50 combination of beef and pork, but the exact breakdown of the meats vary widely. Or, perhaps, many places split the sausage in half (a popular option), grilling each side so there’s double the char.

John Sonderman
John Sonderman
John Sonderman

History of the half-smoke and Ben’s Chili Bowl

Whatever the origin, what we do know is that the half-smoke was first manufactured by local meatpackers Briggs and Co. and then turned into a breakfast sandwich by Weenie Beenie, which opened in 1954 in Arlington, Virginia.
 
At some point, the half-smoke became a fixture on the menu of Ben’s Chili Bowl, a restaurant that opened in 1958 on DC’s U Street, then the central artery of a black neighborhood known for its theaters and jazz clubs. In DC, Ben’s Chili Bowl is not only credited with catapulting the half-smoke to local fame, but the former movie theater-turned-pool hall-turned-restaurant has become a symbol of longevity and entrepreneurship in the once majority black “Chocolate City.”
 
Ben’s has been a constant fixture on U Street, through all the turns of history that the neighborhood has been through. When the restaurant first opened, the strip was known as Black Broadway with a plethora of black-owned businesses and performers like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Pearl Bailey frequenting the neighborhood theaters. But much of U Street was destroyed during the 1968 riots after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Afterwards, the neighborhood was vulnerable to DC’s crack cocaine and heroin epidemic. In the late ’90s, a Metro stop along the Green Line was built, ushering in a new wave of development and, soon after, gentrification.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

“There’s a lot of nostalgia [around Ben’s] because we’ve been here so long, because we’ve persevered. Because we’ve been able to hold on during the rioting era, the drug era,” says Virginia Ali, co-owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl, who was recently featured on the podcast Dish City. “Now, we’ve got competition. But we’ve been here long enough that we’ve been able to stand on our own two feet.”

While Weenie Beenie — the original purveyor of the half-smoke — is still slinging links, the half-smoke might not be an iconic food if Ben’s had burned like the much of U Street during the 1968 uprising. Instead, it stayed open, becoming a refuge for cops and protestors alike. It’s nowhere near the oldest restaurant operating in DC, but it’s an important part of its historical fabric. Plus, it’s affordable and centrally located, making the half-smoke a more democratic food than, say, an orca platter at Old Ebbitt Grill.

The appeal has started to slowly spread beyond Washington. “We don’t just have the locals that we used to have,” Ali says. “We have people from all over the world. It’s now on everybody’s map.” If the half-smoke is known outside of DC, it’s because of Ben’s celebrity diners like Bourdain, Dave Chappelle, and particularly Bill Cosby, who became a fan of the sausage when he was stationed near Washington for the Navy in the 1950s. Before his 2018 assault conviction, Cosby was something of an unofficial mascot for Ben’s and famously ate there for free. Until 2017, his likeness was painted on the side of the building.

Joaquin Ossorio Castillo/Shutterstock
Joaquin Ossorio Castillo/Shutterstock
Joaquin Ossorio Castillo/Shutterstock

The evolution of the half-smoke

While Ben’s U Street location, with its famed mural, is a hot spot for DC half-smokes, you can now eat them at all kinds of local establishments. You can have it cheap, from a stand along the National Mall or a Chinese carryout. You can have it dressed up in a brioche bun and topped with fried onions and beer cheese at HalfSmoke, a millennial-centric eatery in Shaw.

Ana Marin, co-owner of Meats and Foods on Florida Avenue, sells half-smokes that her husband Scott McIntosh makes in-house. His sausages are the most popular item on their menu by far. Marin, a San Francisco native, moved to DC two decades ago. While she can’t remember her first half-smoke, she’s certain she had it at Ben’s, which she considers a classic. “We tried to make what tastes good, instead of trying to adhere to the canon,” she says.

Like Ben’s, Meats and Foods traffics in nostalgia. But while Ben’s has black-and-white photos of politicians and entertainers on its walls, Meats and Foods has action figures from the ’80s and a whole lot of Garfield-themed art. The generational divide has perhaps resulted in a distinct approach to the half-smoke itself. McIntosh’s version is smokier than those sold at Ben’s.
 
When it comes to comparing their sausage, Marin demurs, saying she and McIntosh never wanted to stake out any kind of ownership over the half-smoke. “We would never say we have DC’s number one half-smoke,” Marin says. “It’s just a flavor of sausage we make that we put the same amount of effort into as we put in for all our other sausages.” The decision not to highlight the half-smoke on their menu seems like an act of respect to Ben’s, which is nine blocks west of Meats and Foods.
 
But it’s also an acknowledgement that, despite Ben’s close ties to the sausage, no one owns it. If the half-smoke has no set recipe, there’s room for innovation. Perhaps one day we’ll see a half-smoke that is kosher or halal. Even Ben Ali, the godfather of the half-smoke, never ate one because the sausage had pork, which went against his Muslim dietary restrictions. In an age of meatless fast-food burgers, might we see an Impossible Half-Smoke? Maybe, although the official stance from National Hot Dog & Sausage Council is pretty clear. “I haven’t heard of [a half-smoke] that’s not a pork and beef mixture,” Mittenthal says. “If it doesn’t contain meat, it’s not a sausage by government definition.”

Ben’s Chili Bowl celebrated its 61st anniversary this year, and it now has six locations — from Northern Virginia to inside Nationals Park. As the restaurant continues to earn clout from residents and tourists, the half-smoke itself further cements its place into local history. And the more popular half-smokes get, the more license people like Marin have to make it their own and, certainly, the prouder DC residents feel about this iconic food.

Presidents have come and gone, and housing prices have dipped and spiked, but a sausage has stood the test of time. Here are the best places to eat a half-smoke in Washington DC.

Where to eat a half-smoke in Washington DC

Mr. Gray/Flickr
Mr. Gray/Flickr
Mr. Gray/Flickr

Ben’s Chili Bowl

Various locations
Ben’s Chili Bowl delivers on the three main components of a half-smoke: the snap, the smoke and the spice. Tangy yellow mustard cuts the richness of the sausage and onions give a slight crunch. The chili is like a saucy avalanche. Regarding texture: If you want a more charred sausage, ask for your half-smoke to be split and grilled so more of your sausage’s surface area is hitting the grill. If you like the snap, keep it intact.

Weenie Beenie

Arlington, Virginia
Weenie Beenie purportedly sold the first grilled half-smokes. They stay true to its breakfast origins by serving it with an egg.

HalfSmoke
HalfSmoke
HalfSmoke

HalfSmoke

Shaw
Halfsmoke’s namesake is a behemoth of a sandwich served on a brioche bun and incredibly extra toppings like bacon and beer cheese. If you were raised during the ’90s, this spot will draw on memories by delivering their menu in a trapper keeper, your food in a metal lunchbox and your bill in a classic Disney VHS case.

Ruth Tam
Ruth Tam
Ruth Tam

Stachowski’s Market

Georgetown
This Georgetown butcher shop excels in huge sandwiches that are big enough for two meals. Their half-smoke is a more manageable size and is topped with mustard, thinly sliced red onions, and a hefty pickle slice. You can also buy Stachowski’s half-smokes to cook at home.

DCity Smokehouse

Shaw
Spicier than other offerings, DCity Smokehouse’s version of the half-smoke comes topped with chunky brisket chili (with beans!). Their sausage is made in-house and you can also buy the DCity’s half-smokes to cook at home.

Haute Dog & Fries
Haute Dog & Fries
Haute Dog & Fries

Haute Dogs and Fries

Old Town
Haute Dogs’ half-smoke is one of 12 meat options that can be served 20 different ways (if you don’t count the customizable “Choose Your Own Toppings” option). There are more traditional styles like “Coney Island” and “Chicago.” … And then there are styles like “Pho” that dress up sausages like a bowl of noodle soup, with bean sprouts, hoisin sauce, and basil.

Ruth Tam
Ruth Tam
Ruth Tam

Meats and Foods

Shaw
Meats and Foods sells a smokier half-smoke than most purveyors. Chili comes in two varieties: a rich meat sauce chili and an acidic tomato-based veggie chili. The sausage is made in-house and you can buy packs to take home.

Sweet Home Cafe

National Mall
Half-smokes are part of the core menu at the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Sweet Home Cafe.

Ruth Tam
Ruth Tam
Ruth Tam

District Dog Co.

Waterfront
The half-smoke offered at Audi Field, home of DC United, is generously grilled with a crisp exterior that lends itself to a hearty snap. But it lacks a signature smokiness and spiciness. The chili tastes more like bolognese. Still not terrible for stadium food, or if you are particularly sensitive to spice.Sign up here for our daily DC email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.

Ruth Tam is a host of WAMU‘s Dish City and a producer for The Kojo Nnamdi Show. Born and raised outside Chicago, she lives in Washington DC. Her written and illustrated work has been published by The Washington Post and The New Yorker, and featured on NPR and PBS NewsHour. She likes cheese, beer, and talking to strangers.

Washington DC

15 Totally Free Things to Do in DC

A full itinerary, completely free of charge.

Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery

Washington DC is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, and for those of us who call the District home, it’s easy to see why. With dozens of world-class museums, murals that transform streets into galleries, and sites brimming with history, DC offers a full agenda-completely free of charge. Whether you want to try a new farmer’s market, explore a new hike, or polish off your roller skating or canoeing skills, here are some of our favourite free things to do in the District.

Flickr/gawnesco
Flickr/gawnesco
Flickr/gawnesco

Hike, bike, or stroll along the C&O Canal

The historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is one of the most accessible nature escapes from the District. Thanks to a multi-year restoration project, the first mile of the canal is an idyllic walk that’s easy to access in Georgetown. Stick to a short stroll there, or grab a bike or lace up your hiking shoes for a longer adventure along the 184.5-mile canal.

Jump on the pickleball craze

Pickleball is working its way up the ladder past kickball and softball as one of America’s favourite games. Jump on the craze and practice your paddling at one of the District’s pickleball courts in Takoma Park, the Palisades, and more. Plus, Washington DC Pickleball invites guests to drop in to beginner sessions to try their hand at the sport before signing up for a $30 annual membership.

Flickr/mcfeelion
Flickr/mcfeelion
Flickr/mcfeelion

Bike the Mount Vernon Trail

DC is incredibly bike-friendly, and luckily that applies to the land immediately outside of the city as well. Start in the city and bike along the Mount Vernon Trail, a scenic route that hugs the water and cuts through the woods. It’s about a 10-mile trip from DC to Mount Vernon, but you can cut the trip slightly short and end at the Old Town Alexandria waterfront-just make sure to factor in time for ice cream before pedalling home.

Explore a sculpture park

While not located in the District proper, Glenstone, an expansive sculpture park in Maryland, is worth the 45-minute drive. Tickets to the park are free (just be sure to reserve several weeks in advance), and the 300-acre space offers stunning art, architecture, and open land. In addition to its indoor gallery spaces, you can spend hours walking on paths that wind through sculptures, meadows, and forests.

Flickr/Geoff Livingston
Flickr/Geoff Livingston
Flickr/Geoff Livingston

See the monuments at night

When the sun goes down-and the summer humidity somewhat dissipates-head to the National Mall for the rare chance to see the monuments without busloads of tourists. Moonlight will give you a different perspective as you traverse the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial or gaze up at the Washington Monument set aglow with lights.

Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery

Museum hop the day away

One of DC’s greatest strengths is its world-class Smithsonian museums that are open to the public free of charge. There is no shortage of options, from the intimate Renwick Gallery, to the sprawling National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonians offer something for everyone. Pro tip: Some of the museums are open late in the evenings, making for an ideal date night.

muralsdc
muralsdc
muralsdc

Explore the city’s murals

Washington is home to hundreds of murals that are becoming as much a part of the city’s landscape as the monuments on the National Mall. Take a self-guided tour of these colourful creations no matter which neighbourhood you happen to be in. MuralsDC, the organization behind 150 of the District’s public artworks, is a great resource for mapping out a route to explore the city’s street art.

Hotel Washington
Hotel Washington
Hotel Washington

Take in a birds-eye view of the city

Washington looks pretty stunning from up high, and there are few spots within the city that make for phenomenal vantage points. Rooftop bars and restaurants offer epic views for the price of a drink or two, but there’s no more iconic sight than seeing the city from the top of the Washington Monument, which is completely free. Book a ticket ahead of time and ride an elevator all the way to the top of the monument and step out on the 500-foot observation deck.

Flickr/Nicolas Raymond
Flickr/Nicolas Raymond
Flickr/Nicolas Raymond

Wander through a garden

DC is home to some of the most beautiful urban gardens in the country, and many of them are open to the public for free. There is nothing like an afternoon spent strolling through, or picnicking, at the expansive 446-acre United States Arboretum or wandering through the Botanic Garden on the edge of the Mall. For something a bit smaller, explore the grounds at Tudor Place or Dumbarton Oaks (free in the winter), both of which are in Georgetown.

Flickr/ehpien
Flickr/ehpien
Flickr/ehpien

Hike the Billy Goat Trail

You can catch one of the District’s most popular hiking trails, the Billy Goat Trail, from the C&O canal. The full trail is 4.7 miles and ranges from easy to strenuous, so hike a section in and back or make the full loop for the variety.

Pay your respect at Arlington National Cemetery

Just across the Potomac from DC, Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 400,000 veterans. The cemetery is an expanse of 639 hallowed acres and the ANC Explorer allows visitors to locate graves, notable sites, and take self-guided walking tours to spots including the tomb of the Unknown Soldier as well as the final resting place of President John F. Kennedy.

Lace up your roller skates

When was the last time you went roller skating? Chances are it’s been too long. So get back into this nostalgic activity at the Anacostia Park roller skating pavilion. You can rent skates for free, just show proof of a government-issued ID, and the skating pavilion is open from 9 to 5 every day.

Help clean up the Anacostia River

We all know there’s a lot of work to be done to keep our waterways clean. Do your part, and have some fun, by participating in the city’s Green Boat initiative. On select weekends, DCers can join a two-hour guided paddle along the Anacostia River to collect trash and monitor the river’s progress.

Eastern Market
Eastern Market
Eastern Market

Stroll your local farmer’s market

DC’s close proximity to the farms of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and beyond mean that the city’s farmers’ markets always have something to offer. Check out the year-round markets like Eastern Market in Capitol Hill and the Sunday market in Dupont Circle or head to seasonal markets like the pop-up in front of the White House that draws vendors like Cucina al Volo and Call Your Mother Deli.

The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress

Play tourist all around the city

It’s easy to forget that all those traditionally touristy activities can be fun for locals too. If you haven’t been on a tour of the White House, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, or the Capitol, this is your sign. All are free with advanced reservations. Plus, tucked in the northern quadrant of NW, the Washington National Cathedral is free and open to all. Tour the cathedral’s impressive architecture, 215 stained glass windows, 112 Gothically-inspired gargoyles, and enormous pipe organ. See if you can spot the sculpture of Darth Vader.

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Madeline Weinfield is a Thrillist contributor.

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