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Everything You Need to Know About DC’s Signature Dish: The Half-Smoke

Ben's Chili Bowl - Places to Eat on U Street - Washington, DC

DC’s trademark sausage has a murky history, but at its spicy, sauced-up best, the hot dog-like concoction really satisfies.

What is a half-smoke?

Paris has croissants, Baltimore has crab cakes, and Washington, DC has something called a half-smoke. The town’s signature dish is a sausage, generally smoked before it’s grilled. They’re often a bit spicier and made of meat that’s more coarsely ground than a hot dog. Sources can’t agree on who invented it, or what the ‘half’ part means – the latter might be because many of the sausages are half beef, half pork, or because the sausage is traditionally slit down the middle before being grilled. They’re generally, but not always, dished out on a soft, white bun and topped with onions, cheese and chili.

Ben's Chili Bowl Chili Half Smoke with Fries - U Street - Washington, DC

How do you eat it?

This is finger food, baby, though a fork or spoon can help you scoop up runaway chili sauce. At downtown hot dog vendors, you’ll just be handed a smoke in some foil; fancier restaurants might dish it out on a plate. At Ben’s Chili Bowl, the iconic restaurant on U Street where Barack Obama famously chowed down on a half-smoke, you’ll grab a sandwich in a little paper plate and nab a seat at the long, diner-like bar. Oh, and score a lot of napkins – you’ll need them.

Barack Obama at Ben's Chili Bowl - Washington, DC

Where can I eat it?

Ben’s, a late-night grub destination since the Eisenhower era, features the most famous half-smoke in town. Newer chefs and upmarket restaurants are also putting new spins on the iconic sausage. At Bloomingdale’s pint-sized takeout Meats & Foods, score to-go DC-made smokes topped with a range of chilies (veggie, meat), locally pickled peppers and cheese.The beer-focused ChurchKey rolls out a roasted sausage version on a homemade poppy seed bun topped with arugula, tomatoes and pickles. At the cozy Boundary Stone in Bloomingdale, the half-smoke stars Vermont cheddar and housemade chili plus a side of fries. DCity Smokehouse, known for its barbeque, features smoky brisket chili, mustard, onions, and cheddar and jack cheese atop its sausage. And, you can always hit up a hot dog cart on the National Mall or near K Street, too.

For more local delicacies and restaurants that serve DC's signature dish, explore more restaurants in Washington, DC.