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Ben's Chili Bowl

ben's chili bowl, ben's chili bowl mural

Minnehaha Nickelodeon Theater
now Ben's Chili Bowl US Historic district
Contributing property District of Columbia Historic District Built 1909 1909 Built by District Amusement Company Architect PA Hurlehaus Architectural style Renaissance Revival Part of Greater U Street Historic District #98001557 Significant dates Designated CP December 31, 1998 1998-12-31 Designated DCHD January 11, 1999 1999-01-11

Ben's Chili Bowl is a landmark restaurant in Washington, DC, located at 1213 U Street, next to Lincoln Theatre, in the Shaw neighborhood of northwest DC 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, DC riots, and is regularly visited by celebrities, such as Bill Cosby and Chris Tucker

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


  • 1 History
  • 2 Customers and recognition
    • 21 In popular culture
    • 22 Reviews
  • 3 References
  • 4 Further reading
  • 5 External links


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 fiancée, Virginia-born Virginia Rollins The two were married seven weeks after opening the restaurant The building they chose was that of Washington's first silent movie house, the Minnehaha, which was established in 1911 The building is a contributing property to the Greater U Street Historic District Most of the furniture in the restaurant is original to the 1950s At the time, 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 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

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 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" The restaurant stopped serving pies and cakes, which attracted addicts, while police conducted surveillance on drug dealers from an upstairs window of the building

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 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" 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 $15 million in 2005, and the number of employees at the restaurant grew as well, to a staff of 20

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 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 cityIt's a good idea that helps the environment and, it turns out, makes economic sense for all of us"

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

On October 7, 2009, Ben died at the age of 82 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 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"

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 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" The restaurant offers everything on the Ben's Chili Bowl menu from 11 am to closing, in addition to its own lunch, dinner, and late night menu

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

Customers and recognition

Then-US President George W Bush helping to paint a DC 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" 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"

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 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 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" 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 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 On November 3, 2008, a new sign was posted to add "the Obama family" In January 2017, amid accusations that the actor sexually assaulted dozens of women and revelations in court documents that Cosby admitted he intended to drug women with whom he wanted to have sex, Ben's Chili Bowl painted over a large mural of the comedian which had stood for over 50 years

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 Then-President-elect Barack Obama ate at Ben's on January 10, 2009

The Washington Post asserts, "By the late 1990s, no DC politician would dream of running for office without dropping into Ben's" Anthony A Williams appeared at Ben's immediately after his successful mayoral election

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" And when French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy visited Washington, DC in March 2010, they reportedly each had two of Ben's half smokes during their visit to the restaurant

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

Scenes from films including The Pelican Brief and State of Play have been filmed in the restaurant, and it has been in "dozens of TV shows" The short film, Breakfast At Ben's was filmed almost entirely in the restaurant Additionally, it has been used in novels 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

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

In popular culture

A Washington-based episode of the Travel Channel's Man v Food S02E12, 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"


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" Michael Stern, a writer specializing in US 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" 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" In a 2016 Washington Post restaurant review, Ben's received one star and the food was described as "awful"


  1. ^ "Ben's Chili Bowl – U Street" Yelp Retrieved 30 January 2015 
  2. ^ a b c "NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES – Greater U Street Historic District" PDF National Park Service United States Department of the Interior Retrieved 30 January 2015 
  3. ^ "Inventory G of Historic Sites and Districts" PDF DCGov Office of Planning Archived from the original PDF on 19 January 2015 Retrieved 30 January 2015 
  4. ^ a b "Diner adds Obama to list of famous patrons, Reuters Blogs" Blogsreuterscom January 10, 2009 Archived from the original on January 24, 2009 Retrieved July 15, 2009 
  5. ^ a b c d Schudel, Matt October 9, 2009 "Ben Ali, 82, Whose Chili Bowl Became a DC Landmark, Dies" The Washington Post Retrieved October 9, 2009 
  6. ^ 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 
  7. ^ Freedom duLac, Josh October 9, 2009 "Life Goes On in Rhythm of Ben's" The Washington Post pp A08 Retrieved October 9, 2009 
  8. ^ a b Virtual Duke Ellington's Washington: Tour of Shaw: Ben's Chili Bowl, PBS
  9. ^ "District of Columbia Inventory of Historic Sites" PDF p 113 Archived from the original PDF on 30 January 2009 Retrieved January 8, 2009 
  10. ^ a b c d Vorhees, Mara, Ben's chili and hot dogs have time-tested appeal, Boston Globe, 28 January 2004
  11. ^ a b Transcript: Ben's Chili Bowl Celebrates 45th Anniversary, CNN, aired 22 August 2003
  12. ^ a b c d Kamal Ali as told to Gay Jervey Winter 2005 "Ben Ali's Way" BusinessWeek Archived from the original on 2008-05-04 
  13. ^ Becton, Neal, City Guide: Ben's Chili Bowl, Washington Post editorial review
  14. ^ a b Kennedy, Shawn G, "Washington's small businesses tap into green power," The New York Post, August 15, 2007
  15. ^ "Ben's Chili Bowl News" Archived from the original on July 31, 2008 Retrieved May 26, 2008 
  16. ^ a b Frederick, Missy October 8, 2009 "Ben's Chili Bowl owner dies" Washington Business Journal washingtonbizjournalscom Archived from the original on 11 October 2009 Retrieved October 8, 2009 
  17. ^ Stabley, Matthew, "Ben's chili bowl owner dead at 82: Ben's is a Washington landmark," NBCWashingtoncom, Oct 8, 2009
  18. ^ a b "Drinks flow next door at Ben's, The Washington Times
  19. ^ Bensnextdoorcom
  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 Archived from the original on January 25, 2009 Retrieved July 15, 2009 
  24. ^ "Ben's Chili Bowl paints over its mural of Bill Cosby — and Obama" Washington Post January 26, 2017 Retrieved January 26, 2017 
  25. ^ "BBC video of Obama at the restaurant" BBC News January 11, 2009 Retrieved July 15, 2009 
  26. ^ Sietsema, Tom May 10, 2004 "The 2004 James Beard Foundation Gallo of Sonoma America's Classics Awards" The James Beard Foundation webarchiveorg Archived from the original on February 3, 2008 Retrieved October 24, 2009 
  27. ^ Description written by Tom Sietsema, writer for The Washington Post, and member of The James Beard Foundation Restaurant Awards Committee
  28. ^ Lengel, Allan August 21, 1998 "For 40 Years, the Hottest Place in Town" The Washington Post p C1 
  29. ^ Cooper, Helene, "Sarkozys eat half-smokes at Ben's," The Caucus, March 30, 2010
  30. ^ Historic U Street Jazz: The Minnehaha Theatre / Ben's Chili Bowl, George Washington University
  31. ^ Brenner, RB April 12, 2009 "On the Set of 'State of Play': Washington Post Consultant Tells Almost All" The Washington Post Retrieved July 15, 2009 
  32. ^ Schudel, Matt, "How I got the story: Ben of Ben's Chili Bowl," WashingtonPostcom, October 9, 2009
  33. ^ Anderson, Brett "Ben's World" Washington City Paper Washington City Paper Retrieved 31 March 2011 
  34. ^ Website for George Pelecanos
  35. ^ "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 
  36. ^ "JBF America's Classics Award" James Beard Foundation 2004 Archived from the original on October 19, 2009 Retrieved October 9, 2009 
  37. ^ "Ben's Chili Bowl – Washington, DC" Roadfoodcom October 11, 2008 Archived from the original on 16 October 2009 Retrieved October 9, 2009 
  38. ^ Knowlton, Andrew January 2009 "The Best Chili Spots" Bon Appétit Retrieved October 9, 2009 
  39. ^ Sietsama, Tom 10 May 2016 "Ben's Chili Bowl review: I get its importance But I still wish the food were better" Washington Post Retrieved 8 June 2016 

Further reading

  • Ben’s Chili Bowl: 50 Years of a Washington, DC, Landmark, by Tracey Gold Bennett, Arcadia Publishing, 2008, ISBN 0-7385-5424-3

External links

  • District of Columbia portal
  • Food portal
  • Ben's Chili Bowl official website
  • "The People Are Hungry", by National Public Radio
  • "'People Were Out of Control': Remembering the 1968 Riots", by the Washingtonian
  • "Ben's Chili Bowl Founder Remembered Fondly", video by The Washington Post
  • Maurice, the General Manager, shows off Ben's new "veggie dogs" on a YouTube video, October 6, 2010
  • President Obama visits Ben's Chili Bowl
  • YouTube video of Nizam Ali explaining why the restaurant switched to 100% wind powered energy
  • Guide to the Ben's Chili Bowl Records, 1943-2014, Special Collections Research Center, Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library, The George Washington University
  • Ben's Chili Bowl Documentary produced by WETA-TV

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Ben's Chili Bowl

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