Fifty-five years ago, on Aug. 22, 1958, Ben’s Chili Bowl opened for business. Now an essential and thriving part of the community, it has seen the landscape of U Street Northwest drastically change over the years. It survived the riots in the ’60s, waves of construction around the U Street Metro and a sluggish D.C. economy. Yet through it all, it beckoned people to come in, sit down at the counter and share conversation.
Marion Barry in front of the mural of President Barack Obama outside Ben’s.
It doesn’t matter if you like your half-smoke grilled, split and fried, or, as their biggest fan Bill Cosby likes it, topped with onions, mustard and chili. You can even be a vegetarian, Democrat or Republican. Ben’s is nonpartisan, and celebrities and average Joes are all treated like family.
As Councilmember Marion Barry put it at Thursday’s celebration for Ben’s 55th anniversary, “The only people I know who could get Jesse Jackson, Marion Barry, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Mayor Gray and the community together at one time, is the Ali family at Ben’s.”
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, who said he frequents Ben’s one to two times a week, made a proclamation that Aug. 22 is Ben’s Chili Bowl Day in the District of Columbia.
Gray congratulates the Ali family on 55 years of Ben’s Chili Bowl.
Even President Barack Obama showed his support by sending a message to the Ali family via Brian Summers, a staunch Republican. “Ben’s celebrates family equality and fosters a strong sense of community to all who visit. As we mark this milestone, we take pride in this special day at Ben’s,” Summers said. In closing, he noted the first lady “will come back for a special visit.”
Being a pillar in the community, the restaurant sees everybody. But only comedian Bill Cosby and the Obama family get to eat at Ben’s for free. Cosby is also the only one whom Nizam Ali — the youngest of Ben’s sons — has delivered half-smokes to in New York, the Solomons Island and Richmond, Va. But Cosby has been a fan for 54 years, so he’s treated like family.
Still, the entire Ali family tries to remain humble about their success.
“The success isn’t something we feel we can take credit for,” Nizam Ali told CQ Roll Call. “Someone in the family is here every day; you do what needs to be done.”
Cosby was the master of ceremonies at the 55th anniversary celebration at Ben’s Chili Bowl.
Nizam Ali credits his parents for raising him and his brothers in the business and having them do every conceivable job in the restaurant.
“But it’s also God looking out for us,” he continued. “It’s Karma. You can’t get arrogant because it’s everyone who comes through our doors that keeps us here. We’ve been blessed.”
It’s no secret that Ben’s is a big tourist draw, and people come from all over the world to visit. But it’s more than the food that keeps them coming back, Nizam Ali said.
He recalled a story his father told him of a guy who sat down and ordered a chili dog, then another and another.
“At some point, my dad started talking to him, and the guy tells him, he just got out of jail, and Ben called him ‘sir.’ No one calls him sir, and it was nice to feel like a normal person for once.”
Moe, a 16-year employee of Ben’s Chili Bowl who was introduced at the celebration, met his wife at Ben’s Chili Bowl. During his time at Ben’s, he said he picked up some of the Ali family’s values of being an anchor in the community.
“I’ve become a mentor, an uncle to young men in neighborhood,” Moe said. “For the Howard students, I’ve been a counselor. The stools at the counter have become couches. I’ve been a psychologist and Monday morning quarterback.”
The excitement for the anniversary drew thunderous applause and joyous yelling from the large crowd that gathered Thursday.
“Hello,” Cosby said, at one point taking the microphone, “you all don’t have to pay much attention just walk around and enjoy and take your medication and in 20 minutes you will quiet down.”
“It wouldn’t be Ben’s if we didn’t have someone yelling from the community,” Nizam Ali joked.