Monday - Thursday : 6:00 AM - 2:00 AM
Friday - Friday : 6:00 AM - 4:00 AM
Saturday - Saturday : 7:00 AM - 4:00 AM
Sunday - Sunday : 11:00 AM - 12:00 AM
It was the summer of 1958. Eisenhower was president. Federal troops were ordered into Little Rock, Arkansas to aid in the integration of public schools. Explorer I was launched, as was NASA. The first-ever Grammy Awards were given, and Ella Fitzgerald won two of them.
That same year, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. published his first book, Stride Toward Freedom. Griffith Stadium was home to the Washington Senators, and 30% of D.C.'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 1910, it first housed a silent movie house called 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, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory, Martin Luther King Jr., Donny Hathaway, Roy Ayers 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 allow Ben’s to 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 was in shambles. Businesses shut down. 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 effects of the riots continued to take their toll. By the mid 1970'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 of 1985, Bill Cosby --who in fact courted his wife Camille here in the early 60’s--held a national press conference at Ben’s Chili Bowl to celebrate his number one rated The Cosby 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 on Metro's Green Line. This section of U Street became nothing more than a 60-foot hole. Business came to a halt overnight. 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. Mr. Cosby emceed and Roberta Flack performed at Ben’s 50th anniversary at the Lincoln Theatre in 2008. And on January 10, 2009, Barack Obama visited and ate lunch at Ben’s just 10 days before his inauguration. Just recently, President Sarkozy of France and his family had lunch at Ben’s.
Throughout the years, Ben’s has also been blessed with many awards and accolades: In 1999, 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); in 2004, Ben’s won the prestigious Gallo of Sonoma 'America's Classics' Restaurant Award from the James Beard Foundation; and in 2008 Mayor Adrian Fenty gave Ben & Virginia Ali the key to the city. Add to these immense press coverage, including segments on CNN , Oprah, Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, CBS Sunday Morning, Good Morning America, PBS, the Food Network, the Today Show, the Travel Channel, Man vs. Food, and stories in Washingtonian, Gourmet, Southern Living, The Washington Post, Politico and The New York Times, Ben’s has become recognized world-wide as the “must go” place to eat when visiting Washington.
After a 50 plus year journey, business is now booming and the Ben’s brand is red hot. Over the last couple of years, Ben’s has expanded by opening a new restaurant and bar called Ben's Next Door (right next door to Ben's Chili Bowl). Next Door features a totally different menu, a 53-ft full bar and 9 TV's. Ben's has also expanded into the Washington Nationals baseball stadium, has built a gift shop and visitor’s center on the second floor next to Ben’s, and has opened an online store where customers can order half-smokes & chili or t-shirts & hats to be shipped anywhere in the U.S. at www.benschilibowl.com.
So 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 will continue its role as the anchor of the neighborhood. The one constant thing Ben’s has had since 1958 has been the most loyal of customers, and we listened when you said, "whatever you do, never change this place." After 51 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. Since President Obama came, the line may have gotten longer but the look and feel of Ben’s will never change. To our customers and especially our regulars, we appreciate you and thank you for supporting Ben's. To those reading this that have yet to come to Ben's, we look forward to seeing you very soon. So where are Ben & Virginia Ali these days? Sadly, Ben passed away on October 7, 2009 and will forever be terribly missed. But what a legacy he left. Virginia still comes in to check on her Chili Bowl and to meet and greet customers from around the world. Continuing the legacy are two of Virginia’s sons Kamal and Nizam, her daughter-in-law Sonya, nephews Rob and Logan, and a host of wonderful staff. Thank you for taking the time to read this. We hope to see you soon at Ben’s!
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