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Ben's Chili Bowl

Coordinates: 38°55′02″N 77°01′44″W / 38.9172°N 77.0288°W / 38.9172; -77.0288
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Ben's Chili Bowl
Ben's Chili Bowl, Northwest Washington, D.C.
Restaurant information
EstablishedAugust 22, 1958; 65 years ago (1958-08-22)[1]
Owner(s)Virginia Ali
Food typeAmerican
Dress codeCasual
RatingYelp: [2]
Zagat: 22 out of 30 (Food)
Street address1213 U Street, NW
CityWashington, D.C.
Coordinates38°55′02″N 77°01′44″W / 38.9172°N 77.0288°W / 38.9172; -77.0288
Minnehaha Nickelodeon Theater
(now Ben's Chili Bowl)
Built1909; 115 years ago (1909)
Built byDistrict Amusement Company[3]
ArchitectP.A. Hurlehaus[3]
Architectural styleRenaissance Revival
Part ofGreater U Street Historic District (ID98001557[3])
Significant dates
Designated CPDecember 31, 1998; 25 years ago (1998-12-31)
Designated DCHDJanuary 11, 1999; 25 years ago (1999-01-11)[4]

Ben's Chili Bowl is a landmark restaurant in Washington, D.C., United States, located at 1213 U Street, next to Lincoln Theatre, in the U Street Corridor (a.k.a. Cardozo/Shaw neighborhood) of Northwest D.C. It is known locally for its chili dogs, half-smokes, and milkshakes, and has been part of the U Street neighborhood 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 Anthony Bourdain and Chris Tucker, and famously President-elect Barack Obama in January 2009.[5]


Ben's Chili Bowl was founded on August 22, 1958 (Friday),[1] by Ben Ali, a Trinidadian-born immigrant of Indian descent 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.[6][7][8] The building they chose was that of Washington's first silent movie house, the Minnehaha, which was established in 1911.[9] The building is a contributing property to the Greater U Street Historic District.[10] Most of the furniture in the restaurant is original to the 1950s.[11] 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 April 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.[12] 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 firefighters 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.[13]

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.[12] 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."[13] The restaurant stopped serving pies and cakes, which attracted addicts, while police conducted surveillance on drug dealers from an upstairs window of the building.[6]

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. However, Ben's Chili Bowl stayed open to feed the construction workers.[11] 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".[14] 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.[13]

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.[15] 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."[15]

In 2008, Ben's Chili Bowl opened a second location in the newly built Nationals Park,[16] though it has a more limited selection than the original restaurant.

On October 7, 2009, Ben died at the age of 82.[17] 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.[17] 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."[18]

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.[19] 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".[19] The restaurant offers everything on the Ben's Chili Bowl menu from 11 am to closing, in addition to its lunch, dinner, and a late-night menu.[20]

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

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".[11] 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."[21]

The most famous regular customer is comedian Bill Cosby, who took his future wife to Ben's when they were dating.[9] 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.[22] 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."[22] 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.[11] 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.[23] On November 3, 2008, a new sign was posted to add "the Obama family".[24] Starting in 2012 a large mural featuring Cosby adorned the building, but was removed in January 2017 amid sexual assault allegations against the comedian.[25]

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.[6] Then-President-elect Barack Obama ate at Ben's on January 10, 2009.[5][26]

The Washington Post asserts, "By the late 1990s, no D.C. politician would dream of running for office without dropping into Ben's."[6] Anthony A. Williams appeared at Ben's immediately after his successful mayoral election.[27][28]

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?"[29] 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.[30]

Scenes from films including The Pelican Brief[31] and State of Play[32] have been filmed in the restaurant, and it has been in "dozens of TV shows."[33] The short film Breakfast At Ben's was filmed almost entirely in the restaurant.[34] The documentary Traveling While Black, a virtual reality project about racism, makes use of the restaurant as the main filming location in 2019. 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.[35]

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".[13] 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".[36]


A mural is painted on the western wall of the restaurant.

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".[37] 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".[38] 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."[39] In a 2016 The Washington Post restaurant review, Ben's received one star and the food was described as "awful."[40]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Ali, Virginia R. (April 3, 1988). "Burned Into the Future; Before April 4, 1968, Washington was a tranquil but segregated town. After the riots, everything changed. Six Washingtonians look back". The Washington Post. p. W28.
  2. ^ "Ben's Chili Bowl – U Street". Yelp. Retrieved 30 January 2015.
  3. ^ a b c "NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES – Greater U Street Historic District". National Park Service. United States Department of the Interior. Retrieved 30 January 2015.
  4. ^ "Inventory G of Historic Sites and Districts" (PDF). DC.Gov. Office of Planning. Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 January 2015. Retrieved 30 January 2015.
  5. ^ a b "Diner adds Obama to list of famous patrons, Reuters Blogs". Blogs.reuters.com. January 10, 2009. Archived from the original on January 24, 2009. Retrieved July 15, 2009.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Freedom duLac, Josh (October 9, 2009). "Life Goes On in Rhythm of Ben's". The Washington Post. pp. A08. Retrieved October 9, 2009.
  9. ^ a b Virtual Duke Ellington's Washington: Tour of Shaw: Ben's Chili Bowl, PBS
  10. ^ "District of Columbia Inventory of Historic Sites" (PDF). p. 113. Archived from the original (PDF) on 30 January 2009. Retrieved January 8, 2009.
  11. ^ a b c d Vorhees, Mara, Ben's chili and hot dogs have time-tested appeal, The Boston Globe, 28 January 2004
  12. ^ a b Transcript: Ben's Chili Bowl Celebrates 45th Anniversary, CNN, aired 22 August 2003
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ Becton, Neal, City Guide: Ben's Chili Bowl, The Washington Post editorial review
  15. ^ a b Kennedy, Shawn G., "Washington's small businesses tap into green power," The New York Post, August 15, 2007.
  16. ^ "Ben's Chili Bowl News". Archived from the original on July 31, 2008. Retrieved May 26, 2008.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ Stabley, Matthew, "Ben's chili bowl owner dead at 82: Ben's is a Washington landmark," NBCWashington.com, Oct 8, 2009.
  19. ^ a b "Drinks flow next door at Ben's, The Washington Times.
  20. ^ "Bensnextdoor.com". Archived from the original on 2011-01-17. Retrieved 2011-01-10.
  21. ^ Buncombe, Andrew (June 4, 2001). "City Life: Washington". The Independent. Retrieved October 1, 2010.[dead link]
  22. ^ a b Alexander, Keith L., "Ben's Celebrates Chili Power," Washington Post, August 21, 2008.
  23. ^ "Ben's Policy". Flickr. August 3, 2007. Retrieved December 18, 2007.
  24. ^ "The Election Comes to Ben's Chili Bowl". DCist. November 4, 2008. Archived from the original on January 25, 2009. Retrieved July 15, 2009.
  25. ^ "Ben's Chili Bowl paints over its mural of Bill Cosby — and Obama". The Washington Post. January 26, 2017. Retrieved January 26, 2017.
  26. ^ "BBC video of Obama at the restaurant". BBC News. January 11, 2009. Retrieved July 15, 2009.
  27. ^ Sietsema, Tom (May 10, 2004). "The 2004 James Beard Foundation Gallo of Sonoma America's Classics Awards". The James Beard Foundation. Archived from the original on February 3, 2008. Retrieved October 24, 2009.
  28. ^ Description written by Tom Sietsema, writer for The Washington Post, and member of The James Beard Foundation Restaurant Awards Committee
  29. ^ Lengel, Allan (August 21, 1998). "For 40 Years, the Hottest Place in Town". The Washington Post. p. C1.
  30. ^ Cooper, Helene, "Sarkozys eat half-smokes at Ben's," The Caucus, March 30, 2010.
  31. ^ Historic U Street Jazz: The Minnehaha Theatre / Ben's Chili Bowl, George Washington University
  32. ^ 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.
  33. ^ Schudel, Matt, "How I got the story: Ben of Ben's Chili Bowl," WashingtonPost.com, October 9, 2009.
  34. ^ Anderson, Brett (19 May 2000). "Ben's World". Washington City Paper. Retrieved 31 March 2011.
  35. ^ Website for George Pelecanos.
  36. ^ "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.
  37. ^ "JBF America's Classics Award". James Beard Foundation. 2004. Archived from the original on October 19, 2009. Retrieved October 9, 2009.
  38. ^ Stern, Michael (October 11, 2008). "Ben's Chili Bowl – Washington, D.C." Roadfood.com. Archived from the original on 16 October 2009. Retrieved October 9, 2009.
  39. ^ Knowlton, Andrew (January 2009). "The Best Chili Spots". Bon Appétit. Retrieved October 9, 2009.
  40. ^ Sietsema, Tom (10 May 2016). "Ben's Chili Bowl review: I get its importance. But I still wish the food were better". The Washington Post. Retrieved 8 June 2016.

Further reading[edit]

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