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A different kind of Washington monument. ((Andrea Lee/CBC))

It is 1:15 on a Sunday afternoon and the line for Ben's Chili Bowl is out the door. The entranceway is crowded with people waiting to order or pick up their takeouts of the chili cheese fries and chili hot dogs that make Ben's famous.

I see a spot at the counter and squeeze past the line. I sit down, order a vegetarian chili and a glass of water and take a look around.

Ben's looks like a place that's been collecting things for decades. The chairs, stools, Formica tables and signs ("Home of the Famous Chili Dog") are right out of the 1950s. Many photos are from the 1970s; the jukebox has a '90s feel to it. This is July, but there are still Christmas lights adding to the decor.

The walls are covered in framed pictures mostly of politicians such as Senator Hillary Clinton or D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. There is also a notable grouping of African-American celebrities such as comedian Bill Cosby (for whom the "Bill Cosby's Original Chili Half Smoke" is named) and actor Denzel Washington.

Also on the wall is a framed proclamation declaring August 21, 1998 "Ben's Chili Bowl Day" in honour of the restaurant's 40th anniversary. Next month, it turns 50.

City of institutions

It is hard to underestimate the significance of a place like Ben's Chili Bowl in a place like Washington, D.C. In a city of institutions, it is one in its own right, having weathered the storms of segregation, integration, riots and gentrification.

Ben's opened in 1958 in what had once been a silent movie hall at the heart of Washington's African-American U-Street corridor. Nightclubs and theatres lined what people then called "Black Broadway."

Jazz legends Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were Ben's regulars. Martin Luther King, Jr. also liked to stop by.

When he was shot in 1968, riots broke out in Washington as well as other large American cities. Rage ruled; buildings burned.

But when the mayor tried to enforce a city-wide curfew, one prominent activist asked if Ben's could please stay open. Police agreed. As fires burned outside, Ben's grills burned overtime, providing food and shelter to police, firefighters and activists.

When the fires subsided and the smoke cleared, almost the entire neighbourhood had been destroyed. Ben's was still there.

Ben's at 50

In the 1970s, drug dealers and prostitutes moved into the neighbourhood. Almost everybody else moved out, except Ben's.

And that is why now, decades later, amidst a new wave of development and desegregation, it is perhaps not surprising that Ben's is still the busiest place around on a warm Sunday afternoon in July.

At the counter, two young men are finishing their meals. One is in shirtsleeves, the other in a jacket and tie. They look as if they have just come from church. They pay their bill, smile at the woman next to them and leave.

A server clears their empty red baskets and cups. Red is everywhere, in the food baskets, cups, stool cushions and ketchup squeeze bottles. It also dominates the two Coca-Cola clocks ticking on opposite walls.

The clocks lend an orderly semblance to a place that seems to be in constant motion. At the counter, one man scoops out ice to serve drinks while others bustle about filling orders.

A waitress takes buns out of the toaster, slaps them in red baskets and tops them with lettuce, tomatoes, relish, patties and, of course, chili. Another female server plops buns into the toaster and a veggie burger into the microwave. A male server in a fisherman's hat carries five boxes of fries to their destination. A young man refills bins of straws and plastic cutlery.

Din of silence

The hip hop playing on the jukebox has stopped, but there's no silence in this establishment. Instead, you can hear the sausages and hamburgers spitting grease on the grill, the whirl of the Slushie machine on the counter nearby, the constant ringing of the cash register and the overlapping conversations that make eavesdropping impossible.

A young couple arrives at the counter to replace the two young men. He, in a light green T-shirt and khaki shorts, orders chili cheese fries and a hamburger. She, in a blue-striped T-shirt, denim shorts and flip flops, orders chili with cheese.

They don't speak much. He mostly watches a replay of a Washington Redskins football game on a television in a corner above the counter. (There is a sign in Ben's declaring it "Redskins Country.") They share the chili cheese fries.

Further down the counter, a middle-aged man in a navy T-shirt and glasses is eating a chili hamburger.

A short while later, two police officers come in and order takeout.

The young couple at the counter leaves and are replaced by two women in their early 20s, both dressed in black. They each order a chili dog and a basket of chili cheese fries to share. Like so many others here, they look like college kids coming in for a greasy post-party pig-out after a long Saturday night.

Ben's itself feels a bit greasy, as if it could use a good cleaning. The walls need a fresh coat of paint, the tiles around the kitchen sinks are crumbling and there is dust on the vents and the blades of the five ceiling fans whirring overhead.

But it is the dust and grime of five decades of a rich Washington history. It is not just the chili dogs that keep the customers coming back.

Andrea Lee is a producer in the CBC Washington bureau.