There is, perhaps, no name more synonymous with Washington, D.C., than Ben’s Chili Bowl. Known for its half smokes and spicy chili, the 53-year-old restaurant has been a pillar on the U Street corridor since its opening and is now being preserved and celebrated in an exhibit at George Washington University’s Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library.
Located on the seventh floor of the Africana Research Center, the display shows information such as payroll records from the eatery and photos of its famous patrons, including President Barack Obama, Bill Cosby and former District Mayor Adrian Fenty. The archives give visitors a glimpse into the life of the late proprietor and famed restaurateur, Ben Ali and the growing legacy of the Ali family.
Dr. Bernard Demczuk, assistant vice president of the District of Columbia Relation at George Washington University and friend of the Ali family, categorizes the restaurant’s success and its founder’s roots as “the American Dream.”
“If you think about it, this is the great American story. You got segregation in Washington in the ‘50s and now look at it today. You got probably the most diverse restaurant in the city. It’s a reflection of America’s progress,” Demczuk said.
In 1958, Ben and Virginia Ali used $5,000 to begin renovating a building at 1213 U St. which is now the historic landmark, according to the restaurant’s website. Even during challenging periods such the 1960s riots, the city’s drug epidemic in the mid 1970s, and the late-1980s’ U Street Metro renovation, the family-owned eatery has kept its doors open.
“This is a business that’s 50 years old. This is a business that’s stayed in one place for this time,” said Dr. Meredith Evans Raiford, director of George Washington University’s Special Collections Research Center, speaking about the uniqueness of Ben’s. “Unlike corporation that may have a room full of files this is a family where you will find things in their home, in their office spaces so as you are cleaning up you will find something related to the business.”
Dr. Raiford credits the longevity of the restaurant to “perseverance and community interaction,” while Dr. Demczuk uses the old adage, “what goes around, comes around” to qualify Ben’s endurance.
“This concept of if you give back to the community, if you are part of the community, if you do good, it good will come back,” Demczuk said. It rings true, as “in 53 years, Ben’s has never been robbed.”
Even with such an extensive record of success and giving back to the community, Ben’s treasure is still its food. “They brought the American ideal food, the hotdog, and what they’ve done is introduced new culture by adding chili to it. It’s the Trinidadian culture meets America,” added Dr. Raiford. “It’s a good example of differences coming together to make something great.”
Ben Ali’s children have continued to add on to the legacy. The eatery has since added Ben’s Next Door, which touts a different menu but maintains the Chili Bowl atmosphere, and a visitors’ center above it. Ben’s Chili Bowl also has a location at Washington National Stadium and an online store.
“We are looking into retailing, franchising and expanding all the gifts Washingtonians have given us,” says Nazim Ali. “ the opportunity to do more with what have been given.”
Ali said he is thankful and glad to share the legacy of his father and the restaurant through the exhibit. “It feels incredible. I am happy that the history of Ben’s and the family will continue to be available for students, scholars and historians for years to come.”