If These Walls Could Talk: Ben's Chili Bowl, DC

By Kathleen Squires  |  January 3, 2014

If the walls in restaurants and bars could talk, what stories would they tell about the people who passed through and the events that occurred there over time? Like an old, venerable relative, they can be full of fascinating, quirky, and sometimes sordid tales of the past. In this series, we uncover some of those intriguing histories.

Home of the famous “half smoke,” a spicy, half-beef, half-pork sausage smothered in mustard, onion and chili sauce, Ben’s Chili Bowl has been a DC icon for over half a century. The humble diner, which also is known for its burgers, dogs, shakes and fries, is also a landmark in the city’s African-American history. Even before the restaurant opened, however, the building had a celebrated past.

  • Constructed as a theater in 1910, 1213 U Street first opened as the Minnehaha, the first black-owned silent movie house in the country. When surrounding theaters started to show “talkies,” the building morphed into a pool hall, around 1922, which was owned and operated by one of DC’s first black police detectives. “By the 1930s, there were 300 black-owned businesses up and down U Street,” says Bernard Demczuk, professor of African American history at George Washington University, and Ben’s official historian. “It had the highest concentration of black businesses of the world at the time, exceeding Paris and Harlem, even.”

    The pool hall closed in 1957, when Trinidadian immigrant Ben Ali took the space over and began to fashion it into Ben’s Chili Bowl. As he was renovating the space, he made several trips to the Industrial Bank down the block, and that’s where he met Virginia Rollins. Virginia was smitten; she helped Ben open the spot in August 1958, and two months later they were married.

  • By that time, U Street was known as “Black Broadway,” with theaters such as the Lincoln, the Howard, the Republic, the Dunbar and the Booker T. hosting some of the biggest acts of the time, including Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. “My parents would always say it wasn’t a big deal to see them all at Ben’s,” says Nizam Ali, son of Ben and Virginia, who currently runs the restaurant with his siblings.“Because of segregation, they couldn’t go eat downtown at restaurants in fancy hotels. They could play there, but they couldn’t eat in the dining room. So they would hang here on U Street and eat here.” Demczuk says that the always-tuxedoed Cab Calloway was a particularly huge fan. “When Cab Calloway would come in, once he got a couple of chili dogs in him, the spice would send him dancing up and down the aisle, tapping a few steps.”

    Another fan of Ben’s since the early days was a then-unknown Bill Cosby. Cosby discovered Ben’s with a military buddy while on leave from boot camp in Maryland. Coming into town just for the half-smokes became a ritual for Cosby, and later, when he would be performing at theaters nearby, he always made a point to eat at Ben’s. He’s been a die-hard loyalist ever since: Cosby courted his wife Camille at Ben’s; and he held a press conference at the eatery when The Cosby Show attained its #1 Nielsen rating. Recently, he celebrated the restaurant’s 55th anniversary and emceed Virginia’s 80th birthday party at the Lincoln Theater.

  • While performers loved Ben’s, the spot also was an important place for political figures as well. Ben’s became the center of the community during the Civil Rights Movement, donating food during the March on Washington in 1963 and also serving as a meeting place for the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), which was headquartered across the street. The SNCC leader, Stokely Carmichael, ate at Ben’s every day, according to Nizam Ali, and he even brought Dr. Martin Luther King there.

    “Today, every politician in the city will tell you, if you don’t have your meetings at Ben’s Chili Bowl, you’re not really a serious politician,” Demczuk says. “Dr. King would use Ben's during the Poor People's Campaign. Dr. King, Jesse Jackson, and the staff would use Ben's as a place to meet, get a hot dog and have a discussion. SNCC did the same thing. Walter Fauntroy who headed up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and was Dr. King's DC coordinator, would often meet at Ben's, too.”

    Following the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, race riots raged through the neighborhood for five days. The National Guard was tear-gassing civilians and businesses shuttered in fear. “We put a sign in the window that said ‘Soul Brother,’” Virginia Ali told The Washingtonian. “We were not the only ones who did that. It was supposed to identify an African-American business. Some of them were saved, but some were burned.”

    A city-wide curfew was imposed; Carmichael, however, lobbied for Ben’s to legally stay open. “My mom and dad asked Stokely, ‘What can we do to help?’,” Nizam Ali says. “And he answered, ‘We need you to stay open.’ And he made it happen. He was able to get our employees passes to break curfew and to come to work. I think that was important. People needed a place to go. Ben’s was comfort food, but also a meeting place.”  That cemented Ben’s reputation as always being open. Always.

    After the riots, the neighborhood sunk into years of decline during the 70s. The drug trade moved in and scores of businesses moved out. But Ben’s stood strong. “There was a ridiculous amount of drug trafficking and crime,” Nizam Ali remembers. “And DC was  the murder capital of the world all those years. But we always felt safe. It was always a place where we respected the customer no matter who they were and they looked out for us, for the most part. People always had amazing respect for Mom, especially. From dealers to gang members - they would look at her as a mother figure.”

  • In the 1980s, the construction of the Reeves Center and the Metro Green Line on U Street hurt the area's businesses even more. Ben’s stayed open, becoming a favorite lunch spot for the construction workers. When the metro station opened in 1991, a wave of revitalization energized the area.

    In recent years, Ben’s not only continues to be an important hub for locals, but it is a requisite stop for tourists as well. In 2009, Ben’s won a particularly high-profile customer. Just before his first inauguration, Barack Obama paid a surprise visit. “The Secret Service came in and four or five minutes later, he walked in the front door with Mayor Fenty,” Nizam Ali recalls. “There was humongous applause. And he literally walked the whole restaurant to shake hands with everybody in here, and it was packed. He sat down with the mayor and had a half-smoke and split some cheese fries and had a sweet tea.”

  • Today, at 55 years old, Ben’s has expanded with branches at H Street, Nationals Park and FedEx field, and with an adjacent, upscale eatery, called Ben’s Next Door. The original has been named one of 20 Best Food Destinations in America by the Smithsonian; honored with a James Beard Foundation Award for America’s Classics; and Ben and Virginia have been inducted into the DC Hall of Fame.

    Though Ben passed away in 2009, Virginia stops in almost every day, ensuring that recipes stay consistent and that the vibe remains the same. “Why it endures so much has to do with individual leadership and individual grit,” Demczuk says. “The Ali family had grit. They hung in there and they believed in their community. They believed that the neighborhood would get better someday. They believed that after the riots, they would rebuild. They believed that drugs and those social issues that drove most people away would someday give way and things would improve if they worked hard in that community. And they believed in the coming of the subway. I think that it was really a personality trait of both Virginia and Ben Ali. Consequently, what goes around comes around. The real truth is that Ben and Virginia loved their neighborhood, and their neighborhood loved them back.”