January 10th, 2009
05:37 PM ET
9 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. Paul in VA

    Ben's Chili Bowl is the best! They should be coming up on their 50th anniversary.

    January 10, 2009 07:07 pm at 7:07 pm |
  2. Judy Zukoski, Barnesville, PA

    President Obama and Vice-President Biden are both terrific in that they are down to earth and approachable, and combine those qualities with intelligence, common sense, and a well-rounded knowledge of U.S. and international affairs. I am SO thankful they won the election. Here's to a good 4 years America!

    January 10, 2009 07:07 pm at 7:07 pm |
  3. Leah DiMarco, Texas

    We're having left over home-made chili with tons of cheddar cheese on top tonight here at home in Texas.

    God bless the Obama family 😉

    January 10, 2009 07:09 pm at 7:09 pm |
  4. Christophe

    Thanks for including the audio so we can "Hear the crowd react and the owner reflect on the visit." Is this a joke? We already had to be barraged with Malia and Sasha's school lunch menu for 2 days, and hear about a doll that was pinned to one of the children's backpacks.

    Are there not more important things to discuss, write about, cover, you know, BE A JOURNALIST, REPORT NEWS on.

    Seriously, this is getting ridiculous.

    January 10, 2009 07:09 pm at 7:09 pm |
  5. KB in Co

    This man is bursting with intellect and he's still not to elitist to stop for a Chili dog with the common man how cool is that.

    January 10, 2009 07:10 pm at 7:10 pm |
  6. ANNE

    I love my new President! Go Obama

    January 10, 2009 07:10 pm at 7:10 pm |
  7. Stephanie

    I fully agree with love him....good ridance to 'W' which now stands for worthless. Go Obama....I know you have a tough agenda, but I have total faith that you will lead us in the right direction....

    January 10, 2009 07:12 pm at 7:12 pm |
  8. Bryan

    Hooray – He likes hot dogs, Hooray!!!!

    I'm sure it was cool to be in the restaurant though! Seriously – He's such a vast improvement over the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. I particularly enjoy the complete sentences – it's very refreshing!

    January 10, 2009 07:13 pm at 7:13 pm |
  9. Farrell, Houston, Tx


    January 10, 2009 07:15 pm at 7:15 pm |
  10. mark

    I love Obama, I can't wait til he pays my mortgage!!!

    January 10, 2009 07:15 pm at 7:15 pm |
  11. Joe

    I hate the title of this article. I guess it does get more people to click on it, but Obama does have a history of smoking, and it despicably plays on that.

    January 10, 2009 07:17 pm at 7:17 pm |
  12. adele

    Obama is like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.

    January 10, 2009 07:17 pm at 7:17 pm |
  13. Ralph

    Love him, your's was the first of what will likley be many ignorant comments. Back in your hole, fool.

    January 10, 2009 07:18 pm at 7:18 pm |
  14. Mike

    I am a 23 year USMC combat vet (Ret ,2003) . Respect and voted for McCain, but this new young man is providing me with something that my 26 year old daughther saw, and I called her crazy.
    President Obama, I wish you the best Sir!
    On a different note, take the 50 million and do the blackberry endorsment, put that money in to the DC area for education.
    I live in Califiornia, but DC can use it more.
    Great Danes are wonderful family pets.
    Keep you promises and God Bless you and yours.

    January 10, 2009 07:18 pm at 7:18 pm |
  15. No Peace

    Another planned photo op to eat a chili dog. Anything to keep feeding the kool-aid drinkers thirst.........and to make sure their minds are ful of these images instead if realizing he has no clue how to run this country.

    January 10, 2009 07:21 pm at 7:21 pm |
  16. Ernie in LA

    To Nick, many people that are already in school need to STAY in school. Kids are worried about affording to go to college when they do not even want to finish high school. The drop out rate is awful.

    January 10, 2009 07:22 pm at 7:22 pm |
  17. Simmy

    Love him, love him!

    January 10, 2009 07:23 pm at 7:23 pm |
  18. Um... what

    wow, misleading title supported by a misleading photo making Obama look like he has a cigarette in his hand.

    January 10, 2009 07:23 pm at 7:23 pm |
  19. Roland

    I never could understand why anyone would want to drink a beer with Bush. He has always seemed like an arrogant, insecure, idiot to me. I couldn't imagine a bigger waste of 15 minutes than spending it with a guy like him.

    January 10, 2009 07:23 pm at 7:23 pm |
  20. Al

    What yellow journalism this is! "President spends day half-smoking" and in the picture it looks like he's holding a cigarette. But it turns out he isn't smoking at all.

    January 10, 2009 07:24 pm at 7:24 pm |
  21. Matt

    This just made me hungry!

    January 10, 2009 07:24 pm at 7:24 pm |
  22. Rich

    Is he holding a cigarette in his fingers? That certainly was my first thought, particularly with the "half smokes" headline.

    January 10, 2009 07:29 pm at 7:29 pm |
  23. Blossum

    That food will give him presidential gas!

    January 10, 2009 07:30 pm at 7:30 pm |
  24. tishoogle

    He is so down to earth! Love this man! Make us Proud Obama!

    January 10, 2009 07:31 pm at 7:31 pm |
  25. eve

    Jesus is with you Abama .You are admired all over the world. GOD will help you to avoid smoking.

    January 10, 2009 07:33 pm at 7:33 pm |
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