Few Washington restaurants are as iconic as Ben’s Chili Bowl, which opened on U Street in 1958. Founders Ben and Virginia Ali served their now-famous chili half-smokes through the race riots in the 1960s and during the Metro buildout that closed U Street, to presidents and policemen alike. Ben passed away in 2009, but Virginia still helps operate the restaurant, along with her sons, who are helping to expand the Ben’s name across the Potomac. The first standalone branch opens at 1725 Wilson Boulevard on Thursday (outposts already exist at FedEx Field and Nationals Stadium), with more to come in the next year.
“It’s a lovely area and a wonderful community,” says Virginia. “We want to become a part of that community like we have on U Street.”
The new Ben’s occupies one of the spaces in Colonial Village Shopping Center that once housed Ray’s Hell-Burger. While it’s not an exact replica of the original, key features carry over. A jukebox stands ready for dinner music, and the brothers built a counter so customers can mingle as they do on U Street. New to the eatery is outside seating, with 16 spots on the patio for chowing down on chili cheese fries in warmer weather. The brothers also teamed with local bakery Savannah Cupcake for a line of cupcakes, including flavors such as carrot, coconut-pineapple, and sweet potato pie.
The Arlington debut marks the beginning of a growth year for Ben’s, with an H Street spot expected to open later this year and another stadium-like kiosk planned for Reagan National Airport. Nizam Ali says Ben’s Next Door, the more upscale eatery adjoining the Chili Bowl, is also set for expansion, albeit a vertical one: A rooftop deck is on the horizon, with the working name Ben’s Upstairs. A couple of staples will carry over (or up), but Nizam says the family is “looking to do a whole new thing.”
Longtime Ben’s fan Bill Cosby helped welcome the Arlington location, cutting the ribbon at the opening ceremony. Considering all the celebrity endorsements and accolades the Chili Bowl has received over the years, from a James Beard Award to a visit from President Obama, we asked Virginia what she considers the greatest achievement.
“What floored me most was when we celebrated our 40-year anniversary,” she says. “It was just overwhelming for me to see people standing in line on a hot August day to come into Ben’s and buy a chili dog. I felt so overwhelmed that people cared enough. Somehow people know we care about them, and they care about us, and that’s very gratifying.”
Ben’s Chili Bowl. 1725 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Current hours are 11 to 11. Breakfast coming soon.