January 10th, 2009
05:37 PM ET
5 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. Gordon, Payson, Az

    Here come the Libtards in 3....2...1....

    (is my comment witty or insightful or both?)

    January 10, 2009 06:29 pm at 6:29 pm |
  2. lj

    well for a guy that promotes preventative health programs ...wow talk about truth and honesty??????

    January 10, 2009 06:29 pm at 6:29 pm |
  3. Irving, TX - Loves President Obama

    I am so proud to know that we have a president that is for the people. I Love president obama and his family.

    We are in store for great things under President Obama administration.

    January 10, 2009 06:30 pm at 6:30 pm |
  4. torn up

    The caption should have read: Guess who's coming to dinner?

    January 10, 2009 06:30 pm at 6:30 pm |
  5. Solid Voter

    Obama is way too shady to be president. I mean, come on, it's ridiculous.

    January 10, 2009 06:33 pm at 6:33 pm |
  6. Jared

    What is the deal with the title of this story? You take a mundane story and insight the idea that Obama is smoking cigarettes with the title...I feel dumber now that I've read it.

    January 10, 2009 06:37 pm at 6:37 pm |
  7. DavidinCA

    Love him...." Security barricaded the U Street block, and hundreds rushed out of restaurants and apartment buildings to catch a glimpse of the incoming president. " ...how many of those people do you think got to drink a beer with Obama?

    I voted for Bush twice and he delivered; no more US attacks; Al Queda hiding in mountain holes and an independent Iraq democracy over the insurgency. Obama hasn't done squat yet except offer to "save" or create jobs for $200,000 a pop. That's a joke, but I'm not laughing. The Democratic Congress may actually borrow money from our children to buy into it.

    January 10, 2009 06:37 pm at 6:37 pm |
  8. chuck

    HE WILL BE A PEOPLE'S PRESIDENT. WE ALL LOVE YOU PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA.

    January 10, 2009 06:39 pm at 6:39 pm |
  9. Jerry

    Nice to have him in the neighborhood! A shame we are denied full American citizenship despite having one of the highest tax rates in the nation. We need representation in the U. S. Senate and House of Representatives like other Americans. Taxation without representation.

    January 10, 2009 06:39 pm at 6:39 pm |
  10. Larry

    It doesn't take much to be a great president in our country,you just need to eat at Ben's.

    January 10, 2009 06:39 pm at 6:39 pm |
  11. parker's in the house

    just live up to it, man. just please live up to it.

    January 10, 2009 06:42 pm at 6:42 pm |
  12. aj in sf

    bens chili bowl RULES

    January 10, 2009 06:45 pm at 6:45 pm |
  13. Coultergeist

    I like my new President!

    January 10, 2009 06:48 pm at 6:48 pm |
  14. Should've had BCB

    Rats! Ben's Chili Bowl is less than a mile from my house... if only I'd headed down there for a chili dog.

    January 10, 2009 06:48 pm at 6:48 pm |
  15. VA/DC/MD

    I hope he chokes on it

    January 10, 2009 06:51 pm at 6:51 pm |
  16. machu peachu

    Taking a good natured event your happy about and using it as an opportunity to insult americans is just lousy.Our great country is not ruined and never will be.Love it or leave it Love him.Go obama!

    January 10, 2009 06:53 pm at 6:53 pm |
  17. Pat Omaha, NE

    Enjoy our spur-of-the-moment trips to restaurants, etc.! I hope you can continue doing this since it endears you to us all! But you are probably a real nightmare for the security people!!!
    Thanks for being a real person...one who cares about all of us!
    Good luck! Don't let DC change you! Hopefully Michelle will help keep you real!!

    January 10, 2009 06:55 pm at 6:55 pm |
  18. Obama spends his Saturday 'half-smoking'

    I wish President-Elect encourage everyone home-cooked food instead of fast-food full of grease. One can have steak at home for the price of a hamburger – a profound statement every one to read into it.

    January 10, 2009 06:56 pm at 6:56 pm |
  19. Mike, Syracuse NY

    Ben January 10th, 2009 5:43 pm ET
    Now you would see people who don't read or don't want to read writing what it isn't………

    It isn't news!

    January 10, 2009 06:57 pm at 6:57 pm |
  20. BB

    Our new prez loves the people. He's going to be a challenge for the security details. ha ha ha

    Maybe someone in DC will finally earn their money (if they keep him safe).

    9-1/2 days

    January 10, 2009 06:59 pm at 6:59 pm |
  21. BJ

    Sorry that I'm not all that excited about this news. Of all the crisis going on right now. Seems a little silly, a story about Obama eating at restaurant named Ben's Chili Bowl. Good for Ben though.

    January 10, 2009 06:59 pm at 6:59 pm |
  22. Embrace the Dream

    Welcome to Washington Mr. President....and God bless and keep you and the First Family...and may God bless America.

    January 10, 2009 07:00 pm at 7:00 pm |
  23. Sadie

    We were all so right about him. Everything I read and hear about his approach to legislators, people on the street, his family etc...just confirms how right we were to send him the Washington. I understand and expect that he will do things that I disagree with. But it is this open and engaging approach that will enable us to work together to fix this country.

    Yes...we can!

    January 10, 2009 07:00 pm at 7:00 pm |
  24. Candia

    In answer to commenter "Love him": I agree. Isn't it odd how the argument has often been made that you have either a president who is intelligent or one you can have beer with – when in fact I'd think that most people would appreciate to have beer with someone who is ALSO intelligent?

    January 10, 2009 07:04 pm at 7:04 pm |
  25. PowWow

    you still have not answered my question. who is going to be the Secretary of Common Sense and Honest Policy Quality Control ?

    January 10, 2009 07:06 pm at 7:06 pm |
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