Ben's Chili Bowl

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Ben's Chili Bowl
Ben's Chili Bowl.jpg
Ben's Chili Bowl, established in 1958, is in a building that used to be a theater for silent movies
Restaurant information
EstablishedAugust 22, 1958 (1958-08-22)
Current owner(s)Virginia Ali
Food typeAmerican
Dress codeCasual
Street address1213 U Street, NW
CityWashington, D.C.
Postal code/ZIP20009
CountryUnited States
Other locationsNationals Park
Washington, D.C.
Other information
Ben's Chili Bowl
Part ofGreater U Street Historic District (#98001557)
Added to NRHPDecember 31, 1998
Websitewww.benschilibowl.com
 
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Ben's Chili Bowl
Ben's Chili Bowl.jpg
Ben's Chili Bowl, established in 1958, is in a building that used to be a theater for silent movies
Restaurant information
EstablishedAugust 22, 1958 (1958-08-22)
Current owner(s)Virginia Ali
Food typeAmerican
Dress codeCasual
Street address1213 U Street, NW
CityWashington, D.C.
Postal code/ZIP20009
CountryUnited States
Other locationsNationals Park
Washington, D.C.
Other information
Ben's Chili Bowl
Part ofGreater U Street Historic District (#98001557)
Added to NRHPDecember 31, 1998
Websitewww.benschilibowl.com

Ben's Chili Bowl is a landmark restaurant in Washington, D.C., located at 1213 U Street, next to Lincoln Theatre, in the Shaw neighborhood of northwest D.C. It is known locally for its chili dogs, half-smokes, and milkshakes, and has been an integral part of the neighborhood's history since its founding in 1958. It was frequented by both police and protesters during the 1968 Washington, D.C. riots, and is regularly visited by celebrities, such as Bill Cosby and Chris Tucker.

In January 2009, Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty took then-President-elect Barack Obama to eat at Ben's as part of his welcome to the city.[1]

History[edit]

Ben's Chili Bowl was founded on August 22, 1958 by Ben Ali, a Trinidadian-born immigrant who had studied dentistry at nearby Howard University, and his fiancee, Virginian-born Virginia Rollins. The two were married seven weeks after opening the restaurant.[2][3][4] The building they chose was that of Washington's first silent movie house, the Minnehaha, which was established in 1911.[5] The building is a contributing property to the Greater U Street Historic District.[6] Most of the furniture in the restaurant is original to the 1950s.[7] At the time, Washington was officially segregated, and U Street was known as "Black Broadway". Many jazz greats of the day, such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Nat King Cole, would stop by the restaurant when they performed at U Street clubs.

The U Street corridor was devastated by the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.[8] During the riots, black activist Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, asked Ben to keep his restaurant open and the Alis obtained permission to stay open past curfew. The restaurant fed both the police officers and firemen working to impose order on the neighborhood, as well as the black activists. The violence and arson reached such an extent that Ben wrote "Soul Brother" in soap on the front window in the hopes that it would stop the angry mobs.[9]

Another view of the iconic facade

The destruction of so many businesses led to the flight of residents towards the suburbs and the economic decline of the neighborhood through the mid-1970s to mid-1980s. As the area became known for its drug addicts, Ben's Chili Bowl reduced its staff to one employee.[8] Ben and Virginia's son Kamal recalled, "We stayed and had a following, because the Chili Bowl was like the neighborhood barbershop. People would sit here and chat. There was always a family presence and the locals protected us."[9] The restaurant stopped serving pies and cakes, which attracted addicts, while police conducted surveillance on drug dealers from an upstairs window of the building.[2]

The extensive construction of the U Street Metro station across the street from the restaurant, completed in 1991, forced still more U Street businesses to close, but Ben's Chili Bowl stayed open to feed the construction workers.[7] The Washington Post commented that Ben's Chili Bowl is "probably the only business on this strip that survived both the 1968 riots and the construction phase of the Metro Green Line".[10] The Metro and lower crime rates helped the gradual revitalization and gentrification of the neighborhood. From the early 1990s, business revenues grew by 10% annually, to $1.5 million in 2005, and the number of employees at the restaurant grew as well, to a staff of 20.[9]

The grill inside Ben's Chili Bowl

In the summer of 2007, the owners of Ben's led a coalition of ten small local businesses to broker a deal with a local energy company to convert operations to 100% wind energy.[11] The New York Post quoted Nizam Ali as saying, “We see this as part of being involved in what is good for the neighborhood, what’s good for the city....It’s a good idea that helps the environment and, it turns out, makes economic sense for all of us."[11]

In 2008, Ben's Chili Bowl opened a second location in the newly built Nationals Park,[12] though it has a more limited selection than the original restaurant.

On October 7, 2009, Ben died at the age of 82.[13] He and his wife, Virginia, had retired from the restaurant business, having passed daily operations of Ben's Chili Bowl to their sons, Kamal and Nizam.[13] Ali's death was mourned in many ways throughout the city, including a written statement by Mayor Adrian Fenty, which read in part: "I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of the founder and namesake of Ben’s Chili Bowl, one of the greatest treasures in the District of Columbia. Ben Ali was a man who invested his life in a small business that weathered many storms and became the soul of a neighborhood and the pride of our city."[14]

In 2009, Ben's sons, Nizam and Kamal, opened an upscale restaurant and bar, Ben's Next Door, at 1211 U St, NW, adjacent to the original building.[15] Featuring alcohol (something not available in Ben's), the restaurant's goal is to "complement" Ben's, according to Nizam, who says that the goal is to stay "true to ourselves".[15] The restaurant offers everything on the Ben's Chili Bowl menu from 11am to closing, in addition to its own lunch, dinner, and late night menu.[16]

Menu[edit]

A chili half-smoke with potato chips at Ben's

Ben's menu features the "original chili half-smoke" as its "signature dish".[17] It is a one-quarter pound half-pork and half-beef smoked sausage on "a warm steamed bun," topped with mustard, onions and spicy homemade chili sauce.[17] In addition to the pork-beef half-smokes and all pork or all beef hot dogs, the menu also features "healthy choice" items such as turkey burgers and turkey hot dogs ("turkey dogs"), and vegetarian chili, burgers ("veggie burgers"), and hot dogs ("veggie dogs").[17] Chili (both the beef variety and the all-vegetarian variety) is also available in various sizes.[17] In addition to serving food for customers who eat inside or order for take-out, the restaurant ships food nation-wide.[18]

Today, many of the restaurant's sausages are produced in Baltimore, Maryland by the Manger Packing Corporation.[19]

Customers and recognition[edit]

Then-U.S. President George W. Bush helping to paint a D.C. school mural of local landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl.

The Boston Globe described Ben's diverse customers as "punk-looking kids and fashionable business people and everyone in between".[7] In 2001, Ben and Virginia's son, Kamal, commented on the changes of what types of people were eating at the establishment: "You hear comments. Even the white customers. They want to think they're the only whites who'd been hip enough to go to the Chili Bowl. Now they look around and there are a lot of other whites and they are not so happy about it."[20]

Sign posted showing who eats for free.

The most famous regular customer is comedian Bill Cosby, who took his future wife to Ben's when they were dating.[5] He recalls that he first became a frequent visitor while serving in the Navy and stationed in Bethesda, Maryland in 1958, and frequently visited the U Street jazz clubs.[21] Cosby recalls that during some of his visits with Camille, who was then a student at the University of Maryland, he would "eat as many as six half-smokes at a time."[21] Cosby returned to Ben's in 1985 to hold a press conference in the restaurant to celebrate the success of his television series, The Cosby Show.[7] He continues to stop by Ben's while in town for servings of half-smokes. A sign posted in the restaurant proclaimed that Bill Cosby is the only person who eats for free at Ben's Chili Bowl.[22] On November 3, 2008, a new sign was posted to add "the Obama family".[23]

Many other celebrities, including Chris Tucker and Bono, have visited over the years. When journalist Ted Koppel stopped hosting news program Nightline, he held his 2005 farewell party at the restaurant.[2] Then-President-elect Barack Obama ate at Ben's on January 10, 2009.[1][24]

The Washington Post asserts, "By the late 1990s, no D.C. politician would dream of running for office without dropping into Ben's."[2] Anthony A. Williams appeared at Ben's immediately after his successful mayoral election.[25][26]

However, celebrities at Ben's are not limited to American citizens. In 1998, former DC mayor Marion Barry described having traveled to Ghana and meeting the mayor of Accra, an alumnus of Howard University, whose greeting was, "Glad to have you in Accra. Is Ben's Chili Bowl still there?"[27] And when French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy visited Washington, D.C. in March 2010, they reportedly each had two of Ben's half smokes during their visit to the restaurant.[28]

This example from Borf's graffiti campaign is assumed to refer to the restaurant

Scenes from films including The Pelican Brief[29] and State of Play[30] have been filmed in the restaurant, and it has been in "dozens of TV shows."[31] The short film, Breakfast At Ben's was filmed almost entirely in the restaurant.[32] Additionally, it has been used in novels[which?] as the setting for fictional meetings—especially meetings that involve individuals from "different sides of the law"—as it was in George Pelecanos's King Suckerman.[33]

Ben and Virginia Ali were inducted into the D.C. Hall of Fame, and in 1999, the alley adjacent to the restaurant was renamed "Ben Ali Way".[9] On the occasion of Ben Ali's 2009 death, D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty released a statement calling the restaurant "one of the greatest treasures in the District of Columbia".[34]

The restaurant's founders have been inducted into the D.C. Hall of Fame.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

A Washington-based episode of the Travel Channel's Man v. Food, which first aired in the summer of 2009, featured Ben's Chili Bowl as one of the stops. The host, Adam Richman, helped Nizam Ali prepare his chili before trying out a chili Half-Smoke; Richman sat in the same seat that President Barack Obama had sat in earlier in the year.

In the 2009 movie State of Play, reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) visits Ben's Chili Bowl and appears to be a regular customer. He orders his "regular": Chili Cheese Burger, Chili Cheese Fry and a Chili Half-Smoke. The scene features the sign: "List of who eats free at Ben's : Bill Cosby, NO ONE ELSE".

Reviews[edit]

In 2004, the James Beard Foundation named Ben's one of the "down-home eateries that have carved out a special place on the American culinary landscape".[35] Michael Stern, a writer specializing in U.S. regional foods, penned a 2008 review raving "The half-smoke is sensational!" and "Ben's serves one of the best sweet potato pies anywhere", and describing the chili as "sensational stuff: thick, peppery, full-flavored and positively addictive".[36] In January 2009, food magazine Bon Appétit named Ben's one of the country's ten "Best Chili Spots", asserting, "No reasonable discussion of great chili joints can take place without mention of this U Street institution."[37]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Diner adds Obama to list of famous patrons, Reuters Blogs". Blogs.reuters.com. January 10, 2009. Retrieved July 15, 2009. 
  2. ^ a b c d Schudel, Matt (October 9, 2009). "Ben Ali, 82, Whose Chili Bowl Became a D.C. Landmark, Dies". The Washington Post. Retrieved October 9, 2009. 
  3. ^ Wilgoren, Debbi (August 21, 2003). "The Bottomless Bowl of U Street; A Neighborhood Institution Prepares to Celebrate 45 Years of Chili -- and Change". The Washington Post. 
  4. ^ Freedom duLac, Josh (October 9, 2009). "Life Goes On in Rhythm of Ben's". The Washington Post. pp. A08. Retrieved October 9, 2009. 
  5. ^ a b Virtual Duke Ellington's Washington: Tour of Shaw: Ben's Chili Bowl, PBS
  6. ^ "District of Columbia Inventory of Historic Sites". p. 113. Archived from the original on 30 January 2009. Retrieved January 8, 2009. 
  7. ^ a b c d Vorhees, Mara, Ben's chili and hot dogs have time-tested appeal, Boston Globe, 28 January 2004
  8. ^ a b Transcript: Ben's Chili Bowl Celebrates 45th Anniversary, CNN, aired 22 August 2003
  9. ^ a b c d Kamal Ali as told to Gay Jervey (Winter 2005). "Ben Ali's Way". BusinessWeek. 
  10. ^ Becton, Neal, City Guide: Ben's Chili Bowl, Washington Post editorial review
  11. ^ a b Kennedy, Shawn G., "Washington's small businesses tap into green power," The New York Post, August 15, 2007.
  12. ^ "Ben's Chili Bowl News". Archived from the original on July 31, 2008. Retrieved May 26, 2008. 
  13. ^ a b Frederick, Missy (October 8, 2009). "Ben’s Chili Bowl owner dies". Washington Business Journal (washington.bizjournals.com). Archived from the original on 11 October 2009. Retrieved October 8, 2009. 
  14. ^ Stabley, Matthew, "Ben's chili bowl owner dead at 82: Ben's is a Washington landmark," NBCWashington.com, Oct 8, 2009.
  15. ^ a b "Drinks flow next door at Ben's, The Washington Times.
  16. ^ Bensnextdoor.com.
  17. ^ a b c d Ben's Menu.
  18. ^ Ben's order information.
  19. ^ Jamieson, Dave (January 26, 2007). "The Missing Link". Retrieved October 1, 2010. 
  20. ^ Buncombe, Andrew (June 4, 2001). "City Life: Washington". The Independent. Retrieved October 1, 2010. 
  21. ^ a b Alexander, Keith L., "Ben's Celebrates Chili Power," Washington Post, August 21, 2008.
  22. ^ "Ben's Policy". Flickr. August 3, 2007. Retrieved December 18, 2007. 
  23. ^ "The Election Comes to Ben's Chili Bowl". DCist. November 4, 2008. Retrieved July 15, 2009. 
  24. ^ "BBC video of Obama at the restaurant". BBC News. January 11, 2009. Retrieved July 15, 2009. 
  25. ^ Sietsema, Tom (May 10, 2004). "The 2004 James Beard Foundation Gallo of Sonoma America’s Classics Awards". The James Beard Foundation. (web.archive.org). Archived from the original on February 3, 2008. Retrieved October 24, 2009. 
  26. ^ Description written by Tom Sietsema, writer for The Washington Post, and member of The James Beard Foundation Restaurant Awards Committee
  27. ^ Lengel, Allan (August 21, 1998). "For 40 Years, the Hottest Place in Town". The Washington Post. p. C1. 
  28. ^ Cooper, Helene, "Sarkozys eat half-smokes at Ben's," The Caucus, March 30, 2010.
  29. ^ Historic U Street Jazz: The Minnehaha Theatre / Ben's Chili Bowl, George Washington University
  30. ^ Brenner, R.B. (April 12, 2009). "On the Set of 'State of Play': Washington Post Consultant Tells (Almost) All". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 15, 2009. 
  31. ^ Schudel, Matt, "How I got the story: Ben of Ben's Chili Bowl," WashingtonPost.com, October 9, 2009.
  32. ^ Anderson, Brett. "Ben's World". Washington City Paper. Washington City Paper. Retrieved 31 March 2011. 
  33. ^ Website for George Pelecanos.
  34. ^ "Fenty Remembers Ben Ali". District of Columbia Mayor's Office. October 8, 2009. Archived from the original on 10 October 2009. Retrieved October 9, 2009. 
  35. ^ "JBF America’s Classics Award". James Beard Foundation. 2004. Archived from the original on October 19, 2009. Retrieved October 9, 2009. 
  36. ^ "Ben's Chili Bowl - Washington, D.C.". Roadfood.com. October 11, 2008. Archived from the original on 16 October 2009. Retrieved October 9, 2009. 
  37. ^ Knowlton, Andrew (January 2009). "The Best Chili Spots". Bon Appétit. Retrieved October 9, 2009. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 38°55′1.79″N 77°01′43.51″W / 38.9171639°N 77.0287528°W / 38.9171639; -77.0287528