Ben’s Chili Bowl, founded in 1958 by husband and wife team Ben and Virginia Ali, is still a staple in the D.C. community to this day. (Courtesy of Facebook)

By DaQuan Lawrence,
AFRO International Writer,

Whether you know it as “1213 U Street”, “the Bowl”, or “1213 U Street, NW, Washington D.C”., the address for Ben’s Chili Bowl has become a foundation of Washington, D.C. The restaurant has become near synonymous with the nation’s capital, feeding millions of customers from around the world, while also imparting a bit of the Black culture that runs deep in the company’s roots. 

For Black Restaurant Week 2023, The AFRO reflected on the significance of Ben’s Chili Bowl, a historic Black owned restaurant that has survived riots, recessions and the global COVID-19 pandemic.

From international and national tourists, to politicians and entertainers, students, transplants to native Washingtonians alike, Ben’s Chili Bowl has been “the spot” for a lot of people for a long time.

In a city that merges national and local politics, and international affairs with Black culture and a large African population, 1213 U Street is a national landmark and representation of the diaspora’s influence on Chocolate city.

Ben’s Chili Bowl was founded during the summer of 1958, by newlyweds Ben and Virginia Ali. The two struck out on the venture at a time when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, and the rate of Black D.C. homeownership was 30 percent. The site of the restaurant was renovated by the Ali’s in 1958 after serving as a silent movie theater and a pool hall.

Born in Trinidad, Ben Ali graduated from Howard University after attending several colleges and initially planning to become a medical doctor. Virginia Ali, a native Virginian of Native American descent, worked at Industrial Bank before founding Ben’s Chili Bowl with her husband.

During the same year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. published his first book, “Stride Toward Freedom,” and schools integrated in Little Rock, Ark., with the “aid” of federal troops. Ben’s Chili Bowl was established in Black Broadway, which is now known as the U Street corridor, at a pivotal moment in American history.

Dr. King was known for stopping at the Bowl whenever he was in the D.C. area— known as “Chocolate City” for decades.  King had an office nearby on 14th and U streets. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, U street was vital to Black Washingtonians, and served as home to more than 300 Black-owned businesses, such as banks, hotels and theaters.

Ten years after its opening, in 1968, Ben’s Chili Bowl served as a mainstay and communal kitchen—especially after Dr. King’s assassination. The ensuing riots led to the city closing most of the establishments, but Ben’s Chili Bowl stayed open.

Kwame Ture, aka Stokely Carmichael, then a leader of the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a ‘daily regular’ at the Bowl, petitioned the police to allow the restaurant to remain open to feed activists, public servants and fighters helping reestablish tranquility.

Though the restaurant struggled during the 1970s and 80s, amidst many social and political happenings of the day. The establishments reduced its staff to one employee, but still never closed. Throughout the 1990s and 21st century, Ben’s has continued to serve Washingtonians and people from all walks of life that enter the restaurant‘s doors. 

In 1999, the alley adjacent to Ben’s was named ‘Ben Ali Way’ by Councilmember Jim Graham. Ben and Virginia Ali were inducted into the D.C. Hall of Fame in 2001, and in 2008 Mayor Adrian Fenty bestowed a “Key to the City” upon the couple.

Between 2008-09, Ben’s Chili Bowl opened a second location, Ben’s Next Door, in the building adjacent to the original at 1211 U St, NW, led by the Ali sons, Kamal and Nizam, who have taken over daily operations.

The legacy business they have built is a shining example for entrepreneurs across the country looking to build and pass down generational wealth via the restaurant business. 

Unfortunately, after impacting the lives of so many as a pioneer with his magnificent wife and incredible family, Ben Ali died at the age of 82 on October 7, 2009.

The following year, in a remarkable display of unshakeable faith, the Ali’s founded the Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation to provide service to the Washington D.C. community and neighborhoods.  The Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation contributes to community organizations by raising funds from individuals and corporations.

The Bowl has continued to serve the District, as well as national and international dignitaries, celebrities and cultural icons. 

Today, D.C.’s internationally known, Black-owned restaurant is infamous for its homemade chili and delicious half smokes. The eatery’s slogan, “At Ben’s, everyone’s family” has remained constant for 65 years.

Washington D.C. is better because of Ben’s Chili Bowl. This month, as we kick off Black Restaurant Week in the Greater Washington, D.C. area, make sure you stop by and get a taste of some of the best chili offered on the East Coast.