Ben’s Chili Bowl Founder Passes

October 8, 2009 at 3:53 pm


Ben Ali, the founder of Washington D.C.’s historic Ben’s Chili Bowl, has died at the age of 82.

Ali founded the landmark eatery on U Street with his wife, Virginia, during the Eisenhower administration, and it’s become a hangout for presidents — President Obama visited on Jan. 10 — and entertainers — Bill Cosby, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Cosby was the only person to get a free meal at Ben’s until Obama’s election, when Ben’s put up this sign in the window: “Who eats free at Ben’s:  Bill Cosby, The Obama Family,” the Associated Press reports.

The restaurant is renowned for its chili “half smokes” — beef sausages larger than the average hot dog that are smothered in chili — as well as its bowls of chili. The James Beard Foundation named Ben’s Chili Bowl an “American Classic” in 2004. And the menu, notes, isn’t for the faint of heart. “Our chili will make a dog bark,” it begins.

According to the diner’s history, the Alis started the restaurant in 1958 in an old theater in D.C.’s black entertainment district with a $5,000 investment. Ben’s Chili Bowl went on to weather the neighborhood’s near destruction during the riots that followed Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 to become one of the city’s most successful black enterprises.

“It has witnessed the rise, fall and resurrection of U Street and is probably the only business on this strip that survived both the 1968 riots and the construction phase of the Metro Green Line,” the Washington Post wrote in a restaurant review.

Ali died Wednesday of natural causes with his wife by his side, the restaurant said on its Web site. His sons now run the restaurant.

More from AP.


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Stuart Reb Donald

Stuart is a celebrity chef and award winning food writer. Donald performs live cooking demonstrations and penned the cookbook Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor."


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