By Lenore T. Adkins, Special to the AFRO
The District shut down a portion of U Street in front of a nationally renowned restaurant while more than 500 residents, local celebrities, politicos, tourists and others danced the afternoon away.
It was all in service of the 60th anniversary of Ben’s Chili Bowl and its 84-year-old matriarch, Virginia Ali.
City officials and the Ali family unveiled a new sign christening the street in front of the iconic eatery “Ben’s Chili Bowl Way.” City leaders also proclaimed August 22 as “Virginia Ali Day.”
Hours later, a star-studded gala took place before a packed house at the nearby Lincoln Theater. Performers included Maysa, Ayanna Gregory, a daughter of the late comedian Dick Gregory and the Grammy-Award winning Kenny Lattimore, a D.C. native.
“This has truly been an awesome evening, actually an awesome day and I don’t know what else to say,” Virginia Ali told the crowd. “It’s not about me though, it’s about my family, my staff and most of all my community and this beautiful city of Washington and I just can only just say with a full heart of breath to thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Mahaboob “Ben” Ali, who died in 2009, met his then fiancée Virginia Ali at Industrial Bank in the 1950s, two blocks away from what would become Ben’s Chili Bowl — Virginia Ali worked at the Black-owned bank as a teller.
In 1958, the couple opened their small restaurant at 1213 U Street NW following a brief renovation, and married several weeks later.
At the time, segregation was still the law of the land in Washington D.C., which meant the restaurant operated in a thriving all-Black neighborhood known as “Black Broadway.” The community immediately embraced Ben’s Chili Bowl as a restaurant and gathering spot.
The restaurant endured obstacles through the years that would have shut many places down. Ben’s Chili Bowl famously remained open during the 1968 uprisings and city-imposed curfew that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder in 1968, and nobody messed with the restaurant.
The eatery also survived the heroin and crack epidemics that ravaged its surrounding neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s.
Longtime employee Bernadette “Peaches” Halton started working at Ben’s in 1977 when she was 17. She remembers Virginia Ali didn’t want her working nights because it could be dangerous, especially for someone so young.
“She gave me a chance and I’m still here,” Halton, now 58, told the AFRO.
It was Halton and Virginia Ali who held down the fort at Ben’s in the late 1980s when Metro started building the U Street Metro Station in front of the restaurant and shut down the street. The restaurant survived by feeding the construction workers and directing patrons to enter through a back entrance.
At the block party, longtime customer LaShawn Smith, 49, marveled at the crowd grooving to go-go music and uniting — at least for the moment — under the umbrella of honoring Ben’s Chili Bowl and its matriarch.
“It’s epic,” said Smith, who works as a security officer at Howard University bookstore.
Today, Ben’s Chili Bowl is one of a handful of Black-owned businesses still remaining on the U Street corridor , now a gentrifying area that has brought upscale condominiums, trendy restaurants and other places to play.
Virginia Ali still owns the business and her three sons Kamal, Nizam and Haidar Ali run the company. They operate Ben’s Chili Bowl and Ben’s Next Door restaurants all over the region — Vida Ali, the company’s spokeswoman, told the AFRO that the family has no plans to open another restaurant anytime soon.
Meanwhile, all of the proceeds from the restaurant’s birthday sales and gala are going to the Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation, an organization that supports local projects all over the city.