If it’s true, as Will Rogers says, that “You can judge a town by the quality of its chili,” then the Hard Times Café is proof that Alexandria is one extraordinary place to be. In fact, as I sat sipping my house-made root beer, pondering whether to try the new special—chili inside a taco shell—I heard one patron tell the server, “I came all the way from Washington State just to eat here.”

No doubt you too have savored Hard Times’ hit-the-spot chili over spaghetti, on a hot dog or in a bowl. Maybe you’ve snapped a photo of the fiberglass horse in a 1941 Chevy outside the original Hard Times in Old Town, or picked out a country western tune on the joint’s neon jukebox. But do you know the origin of its famous Texas Chili recipe? Have you heard that it’s haunted? How well do you really know Old Town Alexandria’s Hard Times Café?

Get a behind the scenes look at Alexandria’s iconic chili bar below…


1. The Hard Times Horse, of course

 Old-Town-Alexandria-Hard-Times-Cafe-George-Washington-ParadeImage credit: Visit Alexandria 

Originally a mannequin at a saddle store, the fiberglass horse you can see outside Hard Times on evenings and weekends is a local landmark, even attracting good-natured vandalism in the form of an equine “knit-bombing” that left the statue feeling a little cozier. It stands in the bed of a 1941 Chevy truck Fred bought on the way back from a chili cook-off not long after the restaurant opened, and a Betsy Ross flag flies over it. Since then, the horse has starred in the George Washington Birthday Parade (surrounded by 10-year-old Secret Service agents); the St. Patrick’s Day Parade (a horn turns the horse into a unicorn with a “leprechaun” rider); the Scottish Christmas Walk Parade (with a blinking red nose and antlers) and Alexandria’s Halloween scene with a headless rider.


2. The makings of a “Chili Museum” 

Old-Town-Alexandria-Hard-Times-Cafe-Nighthawks-DinerImage credit: Wikipedia 

Years before Hard Times opened its doors, owners Fred and Jim Parker frequented Hazel’s Texas Chili Parlor, a Washington, D.C. fixture dating to 1930. Three decades later, Hazel’s clientele—composed mostly of cabbies, policemen, and night shift workers—would remind Fred of Edward Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks” painting. Hazel’s was also the first place Fred would taste chili on spaghetti, otherwise known as “chili mac.” He was hooked.

In 1971, Hazel died and her restaurant folded. But it was not the last taste of her chili for Fred and Jim. In fact, before the chili parlor closed, Fred had begun experimenting, attempting to recreate Hazel’s chili in his own home. He practically turned a room of his house into his own chili parlor. When a piece of property became available in Old Town Alexandria, the Parker brothers jumped at the chance to return to an old childhood hangout and set up their own Depression-era chili parlor. They had no idea Hard Times would expand from their original café in Alexandria to 16 locations in the capital region by 2014.

Image credit: Ben Fink for Visit Alexandria 

While Fred was sampling Hazel’s chili and trying to start his own restaurant, he was also working a day job as a graphic designer at the National Gallery of Art. In Hard Times, Fred saw an opportunity to create his own “chili museum” and tribute to the American West. He drew on his museum and arts background to design pieces for Hard Times’ interior décor.


3. Cowboy grandpa’s recipe 


Image credit: Ben Fink for Visit Alexandria 

Hard Times’ Texas Chili recipe comes down to Fred from his grandfather, a trail-driving cowboy in Oklahoma in the 1890s. Fred’s Aunt Irma preserved the recipe and passed it on to her nephews; the original copy in Irma’s handwriting lives in a safety deposit box. Fred’s other recipes are the result of research, experimentation and competition chili cooking, which Jim excelled at. When I ask Fred if he has a favorite chili, he says, “Texas Chili—it’s family.” Some menu items, however, like the chili taters, Frito chili pie and Chili Bubba (two pieces of cornbread smothered with two types of chili), were not inherited—they’re just strokes of genius.


4. Authentic family photos from the American West 


 Image credit: Visit Alexandria

If you’ve been inside Hard Times, you’ve noticed the old black-and-white photographs of classic Western scenes and rodeos that line the walls. Those images were taken by Fred’s father in 1926 in Dubois, Wyoming, and are original photos, not representations. The photographs offer visitors a glimpse at the reality of Western experience, in stark contrast with the Hollywood version splashed across Western movie posters that also decorate the café. To complement the décor, the jukebox in the back blasts Fred’s handpicked collection of Western swing music from the 1930s-2000.


5. Garfield and Beetle Bailey: Fred’s gallery of famous chili comics 


Image credit: Visit Alexandria 

Fred is an avid comics reader, and whenever he sees a comic that mentions chili, he’ll write to the artist and request the original illustration. Head upstairs to Hard Times’ second-floor dining room, the Tub Club, and you’ll find original cartoons donated by Dean Young (Blondie), Russ Myers (Broom Hilda), Dik Brown (Hi and Lois), the late Fred Laswell (Snuffy Smith), Jim Davis (Garfield), Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey), and Chris Brown (Hager the Horrible). The latest addition to the collection is a comic strip by Wiley Miller, who pens the popular Nonsequitur strip syndicated in the Washington Post.


6. Hard Times hauntings 


Image credit: Ben Fink for Visit Alexandria 

Rumor has it that Hard Times is haunted. Staff say they have heard footsteps upstairs when no one is there, or been tapped on the shoulder, only to turn around and be greeted by thin air. Server Terry, who has been at Hard Times for more than 30 years, believes the ghost is that of Michael Hall, one of the restaurant’s first cooks who developed the café’s famous onion rings recipe. He is reputed to have appeared to one staff member and said, “It’s not about the onion rings. It’s because this was family.” Terry says she has stayed on at Hard Times for the same reason—it’s family.


Reading about chili got you hungry? Find Hard Times hours and info here, or follow Jim Parker’s prize-winning Terlingua Red chili recipe to make your own!


Header image: C Davidson for VTC

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