Ben’s Chili Bowl has removed a mural that features alleged sexual predator Bill Cosby from the side of its U Street restaurant. White paint now covers a series of portraits that also included Barack Obama, Donnie Simpson, and Chuck Brown.
Co-owner Nizam Ali says backlash against Cosby—perhaps Ben’s most famous customer until Obama visited in 2009—had absolutely nothing to do with the mural’s removal.
“The mural went up in 2012. It’s 2017. New mural, new year,” Ali says. “It’s time to put something new up. It’s time to spring forth a good message of peace and unity.”
W.Ellington Felton, an artist in residence at Ben’s, tells Washingtonian he helped lead the removal effort, which took place over Wednesday night and early Thursday morning. Asked why Ben’s removed it now, he said, “Obama’s not in office. It’s the end of an era.”
The change, first reported by Popville, was meant to be a total surprise and even some of the employees didn’t know, Felton says. Asked why they repainted it in the middle the night, he says the restaurant “wanted it to be clear that this was our decision.”
In an online survey, the famous DC half-smoke joint says it plans to “refresh and repaint” the artwork and asks participants to name new faces to be featured on its new mural, which has spent “5 years of braving the elements.” Ali says they’ll choose four to six people to feature. While the poll will inform the decision, his mother and Ben’s Chili Bowl matriarch Virginia Ali. “It’s Mom’s wall. It’s Mom’s Chili Bowl,” he says. “She can put up whoever she wants to put up.”
Cosby is among the single people voters in the survey can select for the replacement, though interestingly he’s omitted from some of the combinations of people it suggests at the end: “Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu,” for example, or “Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack, Wale, Duke Ellington, Chuck Brown, Raheem DeVaughn.”
Ben’s Arlington restaurant removed Cosby, an alleged sexual predator, from its wall last June; a petition the year before asked the restaurant to replace it with one that features women.
On Thursday morning, Felton was stenciling on the newly blank wall. The restaurant is inviting anyone to paint their own “expressions of peace, love, and hope.”
“People can come and bring a marker, respectfully of course, and put up some good positive messages,” Ali says. “Because I think our country needs that right now.”
The final mural will probably go up in a few months when warm weather returns. The restaurant hasn’t hired an artist yet.
Still, one lingering question remains: Does Cosby still eat for free at Ben’s?
For years, the restaurant hung a sign behind the counter that said: “List of Who Eats Free at Ben’s: Bill Cosby. NO ONE ELSE.” When Obama was elected, his family was added to the list. Somewhere along the line, though, the sign disappeared.
So, exactly who eats free now?
“Anybody we want,” Ali says. “That’s the answer. Anybody we want.”
Yeah, but what about Cosby?
“Anybody we want,” Ali repeats.