Ben's Chili Bowl, U St NW
French President Nicolas Sarkosy and wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkosy dine at Ben's while in DC to visit President Obama
Death of Ben Ali, Founder of Ben's Chili Bowl
President Elect Obama Dining at Ben's Chili Bowl
Ben's Celebrates Chili Power
Big Stars and Just Plain Folks Mark Eatery's 50-Year Run on U Street
By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008
It was 1996, and Nizam Ali had just gotten his law degree. Instead of heading to the courtroom, he had another idea: He wanted to help run the family business.
Ali told his father, Ben, that if he couldn't double the revenue at Ben's Chili Bowl within a year, he'd fall back on that legal career. To meet his goal, he went well beyond the walls of the landmark restaurant on U Street NW. He became a promoter, visiting radio stations with free hot dogs, hamburgers and half-smokes -- all covered in Ben's trademark spicy chili. Radio personalities talked up the food, and the legend of the Chili Bowl grew.
Sales surged during that year as Nizam and his older brother, Kamal, oversaw the restaurant's operations -- so much so that Ben and his wife, Virginia, decided to step back and leave the restaurant they had founded in the hands of their sons.
This week, the District's most famous neighborhood diner turns 50. The family is hosting a free gala tonight at the Lincoln Theatre, with celebrities including Bill Cosby and Roberta Flack. That will be followed by a street festival tomorrow in front of the restaurant, at 1213 U St. NW, and a musical tribute Sunday down the street at the 9:30 club.
When they aren't behind the counter flipping burgers or scooping chili, the Ali brothers are figuring out ways to capitalize on the Ben's brand. They launched a line of souvenir baseball caps, key chains and tote bags. The Alis also helped with a book on the place's history and set up a Web site, benschilibowl.com. And they struck a deal to sell Ben's fare at the Washington Nationals' new ballpark.
In October, the brothers will take over the building next door and turn it into a full bar, so patrons can enjoy Ben's chili and dogs with a beer or mixed drink, big screen TVs and possibly live bands.
"We're stepping up the game," said Kamal Ali, 46. Last year, Ben's took in about $1.6 million in revenue, up from less than $1 million about 10 years ago.
The brothers credit generations of loyal patrons and their employees for their success. "It took a village to raise this place. Everyone in this community had a hand in this place," said Nizam Ali, 38.
A third brother, Haidar, 48, is a musician and lives in California.
The walls at Ben's are covered with photos of famous customers, including actors Denzel Washington and Danny Glover, tennis star Serena Williams and musicians Bono and Chuck Brown. The restaurant has been featured on Oprah Winfrey's show (twice), CNN, the Travel Channel and the Food Network, as well as in travel publications across the country.
Virginia Ali can recall the day she got a phone call from a woman in Texas who wanted to make a reservation for her vacation in Washington -- three months away. "I laughed and told her: 'Honey, come on in. It's just a greasy spoon,' " she recounted through a hint of Virginia accent.
By far, Ben's biggest celebrity fan is Cosby, who will serve as master of ceremonies for tonight's Lincoln Theatre event. The comic helped propel Ben's to the national spotlight in 1985 when he held a news conference there to talk about his No. 1 television program, "The Cosby Show."
Cosby became a fan when he was in the Navy and stationed in Bethesda in 1958. During that time, he was a regular at jazz clubs on U Street. And he also took his soon-to-be wife, Camille, who was a student at the University of Maryland, to Ben's on late-night dates, where he would eat as many as six half-smokes at a time. Cosby likens a Ben's half-smoke, a plump beef and pork sausage, to a fine wine.
"You can describe it the same way a wine connoisseur would be able to tell difference between a pinot noir and a merlot," Cosby said in a telephone interview. "When you bite into a half-smoke, the skin and the way the texture and firmness and the toppings you can get on it . . . "
His voice trailed off, as if he was caught in the memory of the taste.
Aside from the food, what makes Ben's stand out, Cosby and others say, is that it's as if time stood still. Ben's has the same layout as when it opened Aug. 22, 1958, aside from an expanded seating section in the back and a kitchen put in five years ago. It has its original counters, booths and stools.
Ben Ali, an immigrant from Trinidad, met his wife when she was a teller at nearby Industrial Bank. When Ali opened the restaurant, Virginia joined him in the venture. They were married that October.
Now 75, Virginia Ali finishes her husband's sentences and fills in the holes in stories she has heard him tell so many times. Until recently, she served as a waitress and a greeter. Lately, she spends most of her time at home caring for Ben, who is 81. The two act like love-struck teens as Ben Ali pinches, teases and whispers in his wife's ear and she giggles and lightly swats his arm.
Ben Ali came up with the idea for the restaurant when he saw how Americans loved to smother their french fries with ketchup. With his Caribbean taste buds, he thought that American foods were bland and that there was a market for spicy American dishes.
He tears up when he talks about his restaurant and his three sons, who all share the middle name Ben. "My whole life has been one happy life," Ali said, removing his glasses and wiping tears from his eyes.
For a restaurant to become such a landmark in the District is rare, and at times, it seemed that Ben's wouldn't survive. In 1968, many businesses were torched during the riots after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But Ben's remained opened and untouched, thanks largely to Stokely Carmichael, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which used the restaurant as a meeting place.
As the years passed, the area became riddled with crime and drugs. Faithful customers told Ali that they couldn't go to the restaurant anymore because their cars kept getting broken into. The construction of Metro's Green Line from 1986 to 1991 made it difficult for customers to venture into the area, which caused a lot of businesses to close. Then things began to turn around.
"We had the community support, and we survived. We didn't want to go to any other part of the city," Virginia Ali said.
Ben's is like a popular barbershop or beauty salon where regulars gather to gossip, laugh and joke. "It's very much like that, where a janitor sits next to a judge, who is sitting next to a junkie. Just random people having random conversations," Nizam Ali said.
James Jackson of Seat Pleasant has been going to the restaurant for 15 years. "You never know who you're going to run into," he said.
The morning crowd is dressed in business suits and uniforms, men and women sipping coffee and eating cheese grits or toast before heading to work. At lunch, it's mostly workers or tourists jamming the booths and tables. The dinner crowd is made up of folks who want a quick burger.
Weekends at 2 or 3 a.m., partygoers from nearby bars and nightclubs congregate for a quick meal or a handmade milkshake as Prince, Aretha Franklin or the Isley Brothers blare from the jukebox. Through it all, the restaurant's employees -- now totaling 25 -- joke, dance and pose for pictures with customers while taking orders and dishing out the food. They're led by Bernadette "Peaches" Halton, 48, a 30-year employee, who is said to be the only one outside the family to know the recipe for Ben's chili.
For about 40 years, most of Ben's clients were African Americans, who patronized the U Street corridor for decades. In the late 1950s, U Street was known as the "Black Broadway," thanks to frequent performances by such stars as Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
As the demographics shifted, so did Ben's clientele. Within the past 10 years or so, it has become increasingly diverse and now includes more whites, Hispanics, Ethiopians and Asians. The customers include people from other countries who are visiting the District and want to get a taste of Ben's. Virginia Ali said Ben's is more of a "melting pot" now.
The changing demographics, along with higher property taxes, caused several black businesses on U Street to relocate or go out of business. Ben's has not only remained; it has thrived.
As Kamal Ali put it: "We had to adjust and stay true to form, and everyone has really embraced us."
August 2006 Scavenger Hunt
It was the summer of 1958. Eisenhower was president. Federal troops were ordered into Little Rock to integrate public schools. Explorer I was launched, as was NASA. The first-ever Grammy Awards were given, and Ella Fitzgerald won two of them. 1958 was also the year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. published his first book, Stride Towards Freedom. Griffith Stadium was home to the Washington Senators, and 30% of DC’s black population owned homes. Nelson Mandela wed Winnie. And, in 1958, newlyweds Ben and Virginia Ali gave birth to a new enterprise.
Despite a national business failure rate of 55.9%, the Ali’s used $5,000 to begin renovating a building at 1213 U Street. It had high-arched ceilings, character and plenty of history. Built in 1909, the building first housed a silent movie house, the Minnehaha Theater. Later, Harry Beckley, one of D.C.’s first Black police detectives, converted it into a pool hall. On Aug. 22, 1958, Ben’s Chili Bowl was born.
It was an exciting time on the U Street corridor, which was then known as “Black Broadway.” Top performers could be found playing sets in clubs along the corridor, as well as eating and just “hanging out” at Ben’s. It was not uncommon to see such luminaries as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory, Martin Luther King Jr., or Bill Cosby at “The Bowl.”
In 1968, the assassination of Dr. King lit a fuse of rage. Riots ensued. Most of the city closed down; Ben’s remained open. Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was located across the street, obtained special police permission to let Ben’s stay open after curfew to provide food and shelter for activists, firefighters and public servants desperately trying to restore order.
After the riots, the area declined. Businesses closed. But there was some glimmer of hope in the neighborhood as the concept of “Black is Beautiful” emerged. Ben’s continued to serve an eclectic crowd of regulars. In the 1970’s, black films gained in popularity, and the Lincoln Theatre next door was often packed.
Still, the riots continued to take their toll. In the late 1970’s and 80’s, drug dealers began peddling heroin in open-air drug markets. The once vibrant street looked and felt whipped. Even so, the flame of hope could not be extinguished. Mayor Marion Barry, Jr. had the vision to build the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U Streets. For the first time in years, hundreds of new jobs were created on U Street.
In September 1985, Bill Cosby held a national press conference at Ben’s Chili Bowl to celebrate his number one rated show, thrusting Ben’s into the national limelight. Business improved and things were looking up. But there were more problems ahead. In 1987, construction began for Metro’s Green Line. This section of U Street became nothing more than a 60-foot hole. Business came to a halt overnight. Very few new businesses opened. Ben’s made the decision to stay open with only two employees serving Metro workers and faithful regulars each day. Through more than five years of construction and upheaval, Ben’s managed to survive.
Despite all of the troubling times, Ben’s has had its share of blessings as well. Bill Cosby and hundreds of others attended its 45th anniversary in August 2003. Throughout the years, Ben’s has also been blessed with many awards and accolades: Councilmember Jim Graham named the alley adjacent to Ben’s ‘Ben Ali Way,’ Ben and Virginia were inducted into the D.C. Hall of Fame (May 2001), and in 2004, Ben’s won the prestigious Gallo of Sonoma ‘America’s Classics’ Restaurant Award from the James Beard Foundation. Add to these immense press coverage, including segments on CNN, Oprah, 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, PBS, BET, Food Network, and stories in Washingtonian, Gourmet, Southern Living, The New York Times and The Washington Post, and Ben’s is now recognized world-wide as a the place to eat in Washington to experience the real D.C.
At present, it seems as though the tough times are behind us, and that the sky is the limit for this Shaw neighborhood. As U Street once again redefines itself, Ben’s looks forward to maintaining its strong community presence. Since 1958, Ben’s has been blessed with the most loyal of customers, and we listened when you said, “whatever you do, never change this place.” After 47 years, Ben’s is the same place it always has been. The counter, booths and stools are all original; the fresh homemade chili is still made with love, using the same secret recipe. Ben’s has made small changes, like adding veggie burgers and veggie chili to the menu, and building a new dining room to better serve large groups, but the feel of Ben’s will never change.
So where are Ben & Virginia Ali these days? They are both retired (although Virginia has redefined “retirement” – she can be found behind the counter at Ben’s on most days), but their sons, Kamal and Nizam, are carrying on the family business. Please stop in and say hello – you will be greeted with a smile!
Additionally a scene from the film "Pelican Brief" was shot on location inside of Ben's