January 10th, 2009
05:37 PM ET
6 years ago

Obama spends his Saturday 'half-smoking'

Obama made a Saturday stop at Ben's Chili Bowl, a local DC institution.
Obama made a Saturday stop at Ben's Chili Bowl, a local DC institution.

WASHINGTON (CNN) –- Obama popped in for lunch Saturday at Ben’s Chili Bowl, the 50-year-old Washington fast food institution famous for its “half-smokes” –- sausages smothered in spicy homemade chili sauce, mustard, and onions.

The visit came as a complete surprise to Sonya Ali, one of the owners of the family-run business.

“Do you think I’d look like this if I knew?” she said, referencing her red blouse and slacks. The Secret Service came in and secured the location. Ali asked them how soon they could expect the president-elect. “Within minutes,” they told her.

And sure enough, he did, with Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty in tow.

Security barricaded the U Street block, and hundreds rushed out of restaurants and apartment buildings to catch a glimpse of the incoming president.

Listen: Hear the crowd react and the owner reflect on the visit

Obama posed with diners and staff in all three rooms of the restaurant, before returning to the counter to collect his order: a chili half-smoke and sweet tea. Fenty had cheese fries and water.

There is a sign near the cash register that reads: “Who Eats Free at Ben’s. Bill Cosby. The Obama Family.” For years, the privilege was reserved for Cosby, a frequent patron and friend of the owner’s family.

“I actually changed that sign two days before the election,” Ali said. “I sat up in the office. I said: ‘I am changing the sign because he’s going to win. He’s going to be the president and we’d love to have him in here.’ We heard he liked chili.”

Seeing the sign, the president-elect said he appreciated the gesture, but paid with a $20 bill, telling the counter attendant who asked if he wanted change, "No, we're straight."

The president-elect and mayor took a two-person table, and joked with diners as they ate. Asked about the significance of the visit, Obama simply said: "It means I'm going to get a hot dog."

“It is a very historic moment,” Ali said. “[T]o actually have him here was just wonderful. It just kind of proves that what we felt all along: that he is really a president for the people. He is just a man among men. So it’s an honor.”

This was Obama's first visit to Ben’s.

The president-elect posed for a photo with a group of policemen and Fenty outside the restaurant, and refused to take sides on a question of local loyalties: “I'm a Bulls fan. White Sox fan. Neutral when it come to Maryland and Georgetown."

Saturday’s half-smoke sausage may be just about all the smoking Obama is doing of late. The president-elect has made an effort to quit smoking, although he admitted in recent interviews that he has, on occasion, "fallen off the wagon."


Filed under: President-elect Obama
soundoff (203 Responses)
  1. Meka

    JUST A EVERYDAY MAN . . . FANTASTIC!

    January 10, 2009 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
  2. Proud American

    Gee I wonder how many local business in Washington did Bush stop into in the past 8 years. Most would have put a closed sign in the window when they say him coming.

    January 10, 2009 05:20 pm at 5:20 pm |
  3. Willy Brown

    They ain't got no grits there.

    January 10, 2009 05:20 pm at 5:20 pm |
  4. S Callahan

    I see two pluses with this 'catchy' headline story...
    !. He is supporting private buisness
    2.He is letting people know for the upcoming cornation there is a place to go for a reasonable price and something tasty as well.

    I'd say it's a WIN WIN for Ben's .

    January 10, 2009 05:21 pm at 5:21 pm |
  5. Mark, B'ham., Al.

    Next thing you know he will be making McDonalds runs!

    January 10, 2009 05:23 pm at 5:23 pm |
  6. John G

    Not news!

    January 10, 2009 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  7. Love him

    President Obama is so approachable. Now he's someone that I'd want to have a beverage with. For all the people that helped ruin our country by voting – twice for Bush....was it worth it? Did you drink beer with him yet? Good riddance Bush! Love you Obama!!!!!!

    January 10, 2009 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  8. Joanna

    I love it that he is so interactive with the common person. I hope he stays that way. I also hope he stays very careful and the secret service keep our man safe.

    January 10, 2009 05:37 pm at 5:37 pm |
  9. Buckeye

    Now make a surprise visit to Gaza and eat the food residents there have left...

    January 10, 2009 05:39 pm at 5:39 pm |
  10. Ben

    Now you would see people who don't read or don't want to read writing what it isn't.........

    Please people, read and understand
    before commenting........

    January 10, 2009 05:43 pm at 5:43 pm |
  11. Nick

    We need to improve our schools because many people need to go to school.

    I am waiting for rediculus comments contrary to article, 3.2.1........

    January 10, 2009 05:45 pm at 5:45 pm |
  12. Richard Komi

    Obama is demonstrating that he will be a president of the people. It is good politics when the president-elect is able to stop into a joint like Ben's chilli bowl for lunch. That is the kind of president we want in the White House

    January 10, 2009 05:46 pm at 5:46 pm |
  13. micheal

    Obama posed with diners and staff in all three rooms of the restaurant, before returning to the counter to collect his order: a chili half-smoke and sweet tea. Fenty had cheese fries and water.

    Phew!

    January 10, 2009 05:47 pm at 5:47 pm |
  14. Sue Ellen Stamp

    I think it's wonderful!

    January 10, 2009 05:49 pm at 5:49 pm |
  15. Posn

    I love it!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    January 10, 2009 05:51 pm at 5:51 pm |
  16. Rhonda

    I think he's going to be a good president!!

    January 10, 2009 05:53 pm at 5:53 pm |
  17. maurice from ontario

    Cool, Pres-Elect! Just cool! Nice to have someone who likes to be with the "people"...even though I don't share your love of the White Sox!

    January 10, 2009 05:53 pm at 5:53 pm |
  18. swissmiss

    Ben's Chili Bowl is Bill Cosby's favorite place in D.C. His wife went to school here.

    January 10, 2009 05:54 pm at 5:54 pm |
  19. Has anyone seen Paulson?

    Good man eats good food.

    January 10, 2009 05:55 pm at 5:55 pm |
  20. Rob Stumpf

    Obama was half smoking? Too bad. I wish he was completely on fire.

    January 10, 2009 05:56 pm at 5:56 pm |
  21. Rob Stumpf

    "President Obama is so approachable. Now he's someone that I'd want to have a beverage with. "

    And you say this because you know him personally by watching him on TV.

    Sure you do.

    Can't wait until the Obama circus is out of town.

    January 10, 2009 05:57 pm at 5:57 pm |
  22. Lol

    Well I'm sure glad that he's trying to quit actually smoking... wouldn't that be great. A man smoking among the people. Doesn't CNN have an article on that?

    January 10, 2009 05:57 pm at 5:57 pm |
  23. mary faye brown

    What a breath of fresh air Obama is....I love that man. Boy oh boy are we lucky this time.......God bless America

    January 10, 2009 05:58 pm at 5:58 pm |
  24. Pepou

    This place is great. I eat there all the time when I am in DC.

    January 10, 2009 06:00 pm at 6:00 pm |
  25. Amber

    Love him @ 5:31, I hear ya.

    I think that the only drink I could have with Bush would be four back-to-back whiskey shots followed by a Drano chaser.

    I don't think there's anyone in the world I'd rather sit down for a Mai Tai with than the president elect, however.

    When he is unscripted and talking about non-governmental issues, he seems like the most down-to-earth person you could hope to meet.

    I hope they let him keep his Blackberry so he can stay in contact with and connected to the real world. It would be a shame to lose that.

    January 10, 2009 06:01 pm at 6:01 pm |
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