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Washington is hot and spicy at the Chili Bowl

Text by Leela JACINTO , Washington, DC

Latest update : 2009-01-24

France 24's Leela Jacinto goes to the Washington eatery Ben’s Chili Bowl, where Barack Obama popped in for a bite to eat last week, and talks to the crowds who were there to see their new president's historic inauguration.

Reporting from Washington DC, FRANCE 24's Leela Jacinto checks out the 'Obama art universe' and asks whether Martin Luther King's dream has been fulfilled.

 

A long line of people snakes past the Obama ice sculpture outside Ben's Chili Bowl, a landmark eatery in Washington DC, and winds its way down U Street to turn into a narrow side street.


After waking up before dawn on January 20 to queue up in sub-zero temperatures to watch President Barack Obama being sworn in, the Obama-worshippers are at it again, standing patiently in line and stomping their feet and rubbing their hands to keep warm.

Why would they opt to revisit this pain? Because Obama was here.

Last week, he popped in for lunch at Ben’s Chili Bowl with DC Mayor Adrian Fenty. The then-president-elect ordered a chili half-smoke and a sweet tea, paid 20 dollars for his 12-dollar tab and told the staff to keep the change.

That's why the Lewis family is waiting here, cold and hungry, but thrilled about the prospect of eating a hot dog in a spot patronised by their beloved new president.

Steven and Andrea Lewis are in the line with their three kids — Shaysa, 14; Semaj, 11; and seven-year-old Syre-Lewis — all the way from New Orleans.


Shortly before setting off for DC for the inauguration, the family heard about Obama's visit on a radio show. Then CNN covered it and that was it.

"This one was on top of our list of places to check out in DC," says Steven with a smile.

With hours to go before they make it through the hallowed doors, the family has the time to contemplate their upcoming orders. A chili for Semaj and his parents. Shaysa wants a burger because, as she says with emphasis, "I’m hu-u-u-ungry."

Syre-Lewis wants a chicken tikka, which, alas, he isn't getting since Ben's is not an Indian takeaway joint. It's a beloved landmark of the city's African-American community, situated in the heart of Black DC on a street that's known as DC's "Black Broadway".


Changing guard at "Think Tank Alley"

Every four or eight years, there's change of guard in the US national capital when a new administration takes charge.

After running on a campaign of change, the country's first black president has brought a change not only in administration and policy, but also in the hotspots, the nightlife and the vital institutions in a city where politics is the dominant industry.

Washington, DC has a sizeable list of must-sees for tourists, including the landmark government buildings and an array of Smithsonian museums. But the largely unseen soul of the city, its very lifeblood, is also rebooting with a new president in town.

Past Dupont Circle — the heart of the city's gay and lesbian community — lies the mansion and tree-lined Massachusetts Avenue. This used to be an elite residential area. But these days, it's called "Think Tank Alley" by Washington insiders.


This is where the pundits and experts on every conceivable aspect of domestic and foreign policy churn out reports and compete for the ears of the nation's rulers.

DC's list of think tanks is impressive: the Carnegie Endowment, the Brookings Institution, the Cato Institute and the Council of Foreign Relations to name just a few.

Behind the walls of these institutes, change is in the air. With a Democrat in the White House, the conservative think tanks are going into hibernation.

Haunts like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute are set to turn into shelters for conservative experts, where they will bid their time until the next Republican administration breezes into town.

In contrast, progressive stomping grounds such as the Brookings Institution and the New America Foundation are set for their days in the sun. All policy-wonk eyes, though, are centred on the Center for American Progress, which lies closer to the White House — geographically and metaphorically.

The Center for American Progress, after all, is led by none other than John Podesta, who served as former US President Bill Clinton's chief of staff before co-chairing the Obama-Biden Transition Office.


Oprah's here, so will Obama drop by?

Think Tank Alley might be doing the old Republican-Democrat power-base switcheroo. But on the social front, DC is gearing up for something it has never seen before.

Obama may be "post-racial" to some, but the 44th US president has opted for a black identity and the city's social set is more than ready to embrace it.

Although he hasn't been there yet, DC gossip circles are buzzing about the likelihood of an Obama visit to Art and Soul, an upscale restaurant located in the heart of Capitol Hill.

The restaurant's credentials are impeccable. Art and Soul is owned by Art Smith, an award-winning chef who was formerly personal chef to the media czarina Oprah Winfrey.

At lunchtime on Wednesday, Oprah's show was held inside the restaurant, beaming live across the nation what in effect was a spectacular restaurant plug.

Not surprisingly, it's very hard to get a reservation here. And even when we do manage to snag one well in advance, we have a 45-minute wait for our table, which we spend sipping cocktails such as the Orchard, which arrives with a fantastic swirl of apple rind.



Chili ‘fit for the president’

Art and Soul may be hard to get into, but Ben’s Chili Bowl is opening its soul to the famished Obama pilgrims.

The atmosphere inside the Bowl is reminiscent of a Black church service in high gear, with the staff and clientele grooving to soul music blasting out of a juke box.


"It’s like it’s a Black Christmas," says Kamal Ali, the son of the restaurant’s founders, Ben and Virginia Ali. "There’s such a good feeling here, one of sharing and celebrating.

"Of course this place caters to a very mixed clientele. All sorts of people have been coming here since my parents opened it in 1958. But these days — just look at the people here — it’s overwhelmingly black."

Dressed in mink coat with an Obama hat, Pat Phoenix is swinging to the beat after a late chili lunch.


A San Diego native, Phoenix used to frequent this place back in the 1960s, and she comes here whenever she’s in DC.

"There’s only one reason this place is so happening," says Phoenix as she snaps her fingers to the beat. "It’s the chili. It's the best chili in the world. Fit for a president."

Date created : 2009-01-22

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