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. Tom in CA

    It's a fantastic place to go for some great food!

    I'm glad Barack knows where the good food's at.

    January 10, 2009 07:33 pm at 7:33 pm |
  2. Dick Bloom

    NO! "Referencing" is what a scholar does with footnotes. The restaurant owner "referred to" her outfit or, better yet, was "pointing to" it.

    January 10, 2009 07:34 pm at 7:34 pm |
  3. eve

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

    January 10, 2009 07:35 pm at 7:35 pm |
  4. MT

    There's always a critic- I mean honestly, are you really criticizing Obama for being a real person, eating a local place??? Give me a break! People like you should stay at home cooking and let people like me enjoy reading about our soon to be president going about his day just like everyone else.
    We love Obama!!!

    January 10, 2009 07:40 pm at 7:40 pm |
  5. TheTruthHurts

    I agree with Pat from Omaha. Obama knows how small gestures go a long way. We have missed that in this country. He's just a guy who wanted a hot dog, but he's aware that many of the people are awestruck and personally happy for him and the country. Great that he hasn't let victory change him - Not that I expected it would.

    However, I would go nuts if I were with the secret service. He's gonna have to show more restraint or he's gonna burn those poor folks out.

    January 10, 2009 07:40 pm at 7:40 pm |
  6. Ro

    How nice wish I could have meeted and greeted.

    January 10, 2009 07:40 pm at 7:40 pm |
  7. Amy

    Darn it man I just want to meet him 1 time! Love how he is keeping in touch with the people and actually listening. Keep it up!

    Love you Obama!

    January 10, 2009 07:40 pm at 7:40 pm |
  8. Mark

    I don't think you should have put anything about Obama smoking in your headline. Everyone knows he has battled cigarette smoking, so your title implies that he has failed to stop smoking.

    January 10, 2009 07:41 pm at 7:41 pm |
  9. SMR

    We have a great human as President. GOTTA LOVE IT!!!

    January 10, 2009 07:45 pm at 7:45 pm |
  10. Bea

    My next stop to DC..lol..reading this makes me want to drive to DC right now....sounds tasty

    January 10, 2009 07:46 pm at 7:46 pm |
  11. Brian

    I would have ordered the same exact meal that Obama ordered.

    Whatever is good enough for the man of change is good enough for me!


    January 10, 2009 07:50 pm at 7:50 pm |
  12. girltexas

    Too bad he didn't choke on it.

    January 10, 2009 07:52 pm at 7:52 pm |
  13. chooker

    good point, powwow. a Secretary of Common Sense. would be a good Cabinet position

    January 10, 2009 07:53 pm at 7:53 pm |
  14. Larry

    CNN, Your moderator appears to be vary biased today,if you do not worship Obama and slander Bush you will be censored and not posted,I thought you would like to know,if you even get to read this.

    January 10, 2009 07:57 pm at 7:57 pm |
  15. Elvis

    I'll bet his gas smells like freshly baked cookies and sounds like kittens purring. I can't wait for the coronation!

    January 10, 2009 07:58 pm at 7:58 pm |
  16. Ohio lady

    While the title of this article may be cute, it's rather misleading. I thought perhaps the press was writing about Obama falling off the wagon and smoking. (Which I hope and pray he doesn't do!) Yesterday on CNN there was a subtitle which said "Cloak and Dagger" talking about Obama's choices for CIA. It gave the impression that there was something very secretive going on in his administration. Imaginary scenarios are being thrown out already that Hillary may be jealous of Joe Biden. Then there is the constant dribble about Sarah Palin. Really, who cares? Blah blah. This is what happens when you have to manufacture news. How about showing us more about what is going on in the Middle East or something with substance. The BBC in America and Link t.v. (available on Dish) are two great sources if you want something
    that offers a little more balance to the news. Less hype for ratings.

    January 10, 2009 07:59 pm at 7:59 pm |
  17. rueters

    and what does this have to do with accomplishing anything. if i am correct, each of your presidents have done many of these events.

    January 10, 2009 08:02 pm at 8:02 pm |
  18. CapitolHiller

    Ben's is overrated

    January 10, 2009 08:03 pm at 8:03 pm |
  19. kathy

    The cult of personality is the reality of the USA.

    January 10, 2009 08:04 pm at 8:04 pm |
  20. Xavier

    You're entry was a grammar nightmare. What exactly are you trying to say? Are you trying to insult Obama? I can’t tell.

    January 10, 2009 08:04 pm at 8:04 pm |
  21. Anonymous

    what a horrible misleading title, shame on you CNN

    January 10, 2009 08:05 pm at 8:05 pm |
  22. oh man...

    Missed it.... grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

    January 10, 2009 08:13 pm at 8:13 pm |
  23. sdundon

    I just love him.

    January 10, 2009 08:19 pm at 8:19 pm |
  24. jason, tx

    What a great, down to earth guy. GOBAMA

    January 10, 2009 08:20 pm at 8:20 pm |
  25. Stacy from Leesburg, VA

    Ben's Chili Bowl is awesome! If you are coming for the Inauguration, you should go there for lunch! Kudos to Obama for knowing the best place in DC.

    January 10, 2009 08:21 pm at 8:21 pm |
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