News & Politics

Meet Me at Ben’s

Ben Ali of Ben's Chili Bowl passed away this week. Read our 2003 article on the history of U Street's most wonderful spot.

Ben's Chili Bowl is so cool, it can make State Department desk jockeys in rep ties and wingtips hip. They walk into the perpetual gaggle of people ordering dogs and burgers at the counter, the scent of chili seeps into their suits, and they absorb the hipness of lunch at Ben's.

Ben's is Washington at its integrated best. The pinstripe suits blend in with the black ladies in floppy hats, the white college students in ragged T-shirts, the black lawyers in starched shirts, the neighborhood high-school girls, the Hispanic laborers, the cops.

"We've always had a mixed clientele," says Virginia Ali, co-owner and grand dame of the Bowl–Mrs. Ben to locals. "Walk in on a Saturday and you don't know what color this business is. I love it."

In a town where a Starbucks that stays around five years is an institution, Ben's is the most authentic cool joint in Washington. It earned its coolness the hard way.

The U Street eatery prospered through segregation, integration, riots, and the two years it took to build the Metro's Green Line stop across the street. Now it's in the center of a redevelopment binge turning a black neighborhood mocha.

When Ben's opened in 1958, Washington was segregated and U Street was Black Broadway, lined with theaters and clubs. Cab Calloway played at the Bohemian Caverns; Martin Luther King Jr. was a regular at the Bowl. In 1968, when King's assassination touched off days of violence and the city was under curfew, Ben's was the only restaurant permitted to stay open in the riot zone.

Ben and Virginia Ali had bought what once was a silent-movie theater in August 1958. Ben was a young businessman from Trinidad. Virginia, a farm girl from Tidewater, was working down the street at Industrial Bank. They started the hot-dog shop and married two months later.

"We opened at 10 AM and closed at 3 AM, except on Fridays and Saturdays, when we closed at 4 AM," Virginia says.

And she's still there, working the crowd. Ben was behind the counter for the first 25 years; now he oversees major decisions.

Bill Cosby has promised to host the 45th-anniversary celebration on August 22. He courted his wife, Camille, at the Bowl when he was a Navy man stationed in Quantico. Now his personal chef orders boxes of half-smokes when Cosby can't stop by for dogs off the grill.

The walls have pictures of Denzel Washington, Danny Glover, Serena Williams, Tom Clancy. And Cosby–he's family.

Virginia Ali reigns over a peaceable kingdom–never robbed, never broken into. In the 1980s, drug dealers ran an open-air market two blocks away on 12th Street.

"I'm selling more drugs than burgers in here," she told the police again and again until she helped move the dealers out.

One day a waiter told her a man at the counter had a gun in his pocket. She walked up to him and asked, "What's that?"

"My piece," he said.

"Can you put it in your car?"

"Sure," he said.

The bad boys respected Mrs. Ben so much, they offered to take care of anyone who dared mess with her.

Now the threat comes from Quiznos, Subway and other chain eateries. And new neighbors who complain about parking. Responsibility for keeping Ben's alive falls to sons Kamal and Nizam.

Kamal, 41, graduated from Georgetown Day School, attended undergraduate school for two years at Wharton, and returned to the family business. Nizam, 33, started mopping floors as a kid. He graduated from GDS, the University of Virginia, and the University of Maryland School of Law. And he returned to the Bowl. The eldest son, Haidar, is pursuing a music career in California.

"It's so much more important to keep this place going than to have another lawyer in DC," Nizam says.

For the first time in 45 years, Nizam and Kamal have to ask people to form a line down the aisle to order their pancakes in the morning or half-smokes all day. You can't get in after dark some Saturdays.

"We're selling heritage now," Virginia says. "People are coming from around the world to see the Chili Bowl. I get letters from Sweden."

She says the redevelopment in the area should help business. The Bowl is adding a room in back to seat more customers.

"Everything is changing," Nizam says. "I want to be the place that doesn't change."

That's cool.