Our nation’s capital is known for its grandiose monuments, ceremony, and history; but what about its signature food? Ask any DC resident and they’ll likely answer “it’s the half smoke.” We’ve compiled the best half smokes inside the Beltway to help you experience the taste of the District of Columbia.
What is a Half Smoke, Anyway?
In its simplest form, a half smoke is a type of sausage which allegedly originated with meatpacker Ray Briggs in the 1930s. What sets half smokes apart compared to a typical hot dog or bratwurst are the ingredients and flavor.
The “half” in “half smoke” comes from the two meats butchers use, most commonly beef and pork in an equal 50-50 proportion. Each meat is coarsely ground and cured with red pepper flakes and spices, giving the sausage an enhanced smoky flavor and heartier texture.
Rarely, if ever, will you see a plain half smoke being served on your strolls through the District. Washingtonians like to go all-out with their sausage sandwiches, using some combination of cheese, chili, herbs, and onion relish to complete the experience.
It’s difficult to walk down the National Mall or the streets of Washington without seeing half smokes on a restaurant menu or hot dog cart. Even sports teams are in on the craze; the Washington Nationals regards half smokes as their official hot dog. Amid the variety of half smokes in the city, which ones stand out from the rest? Read on to find out.
Ben’s Chili Bowl
U Street: 1213 U Street NW, Washington, DC 20009,
H Street: 1001 H Street NE, Washington, DC 20002,
Additional locations operate inside Nationals Park and Reagan National Airport.
No discussion of half smokes in Washington DC would be complete without mentioning Ben’s Chili Bowl, located in the heart of a culturally-rich neighborhood. Brothers Nizam and Kamal Ali continue their father’s legacy from 1958, serving half smokes the best way they know how: from scratch and with soul. Their recipes have impressed jazz musicians, journalists, the Obamas, and even the occasional foreign head of state.
The Original version of Ben’s half smoke is cradled in a warm bun and crowned with mustard, onion relish, and house-made chili sauce. A spicier variant will please those in pursuit of the most flavor possible.
2680 Shirlington Rd, Arlington, VA 22206,
While Weenie Beenie may have the outward appearance of an unassuming shack, it has been serving its neighbors since 1950. Get the Half Smoke All the Way, piled high way onions, relish, chili, and mustard, and you’ll love the smoky flavor and crunchy texture. The toppings provide flavors from all across the spectrum, with the sweetness of the relish and the spice of the chili pulling the most weight.
Fun bonus fact: there’s a song on the first Foo Fighters album named after Weenie Beenie!
651 Florida Ave NW, Washington, DC 20001,
HalfSmoke is relatively new to the half smoke game, but it’s already become a DC icon! In addition to the namesake goodies, they also sling burgers, pizzas, and all kinds of other to-die-for snacks and munchies (mac n’ cheese bites, anyone?) In addition to those treats, they serve bottomless brunch all day, every day. Half Smoke hash and as many mimosas as you could ever want? Count us in.
1425 28th St NW, Washington, DC 20007,
Butcher and chef Jamie Stachowski operates a Georgetown delicatessen with full shelves and fuller plates. His classic half smoke uses high-quality onions and mustard – and that’s it. Rather than focusing on the pizzazz and mess chili and relish can sometimes bring, Stachowski chose to keep it simple, but in doing so he was able to add larger proportions of each ingredient. We recommend enjoying your meal with a bag of chips or one of the varying side dishes and salads from the counter.
Meats & Foods
247 Florida Ave NW, Washington, DC 20001,
At Florida Avenue’s Meats and Foods, you can build your own half smoke using a variety of toppings, including multiple kinds of chili, cheese, sauerkraut, grilled vegetables, and homemade fermented hot sauce to add an extra kick to the subtly spicy sausage. Complete the meal with “crispy potatoes” and a local craft beer or cider.
If you find yourself enjoying your half smoke, you can leave the shop with extra links to cook at home. Meats and Foods is a full-service gourmet butcher with seven different sausages to sample.
Big Stick Brats and Brew
20 M St SE, Washington, DC 20003,
Big Stick is an M Street sports bar near both the Nationals Park and the Navy Yard. Their chili cheese “big stick” half smoke comes piled high with scratch chili, jalapeno, and onion. The freshly toasted, slightly crusty bun adds a pleasing extra crunch. Completing the meal is a bowl of Old Bay-seasoned chips, pickles, or sweet potato fries.
Image credit: Big Stick Brats and Brew
Bob and Edith’s Diner
Springfield: 6316 Springfield Plaza, Springfield, VA 22150,
Arlington (Columbia Pike): 2310 Columbia Pike, Arlington, VA 22204,
Arlington (23rd St): 539 S 23rd St, Arlington, VA 22202,
Arlington (Lee Highway): 5050 Lee Highway, Arlington, VA 22207,
Alexandria: 5918 North King’s Highway, Alexandria, VA 22303,
Half smokes for breakfast? Yes, please! The four locations of this classic diner serve half smoke sausage inside omelets or alongside chocolate or blueberry “hot cake” platters. You can also enjoy a traditional half smoke sandwich for lunch, dinner, or whenever you feel like it; the diners in Springfield, Huntington, and Arlington (Columbia Pike) are open 24 hours. Side options include fries, home fries, hash browns, and onion rings; don’t miss out on a banana split for your final course.
203 Florida Ave NW, Washington, DC 20001,
DCity puts the “smoke” in half smoke by fusing it with all-American barbecue. The Florida Avenue joint’s recipe uses brisket chili, red onions, and marble jack cheese to both spice up and embolden the flavor of the sausage. We recommend a side of classic coleslaw for an unforgettable fusion meal.
For a more authentic barbecue experience, order your sausage by the quarter pound and pair it with multiple different side dishes. Options include “mac and jack” mac and cheese, collard greens, jalapeno cheddar grits, and fried brussels sprouts.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on January 18, 2022 and last updated on April 14, 2022. Please refer to restaurant websites and social media pages for the most up-to-date information.