Bill Cosby talks for a few minutes about his love for chili half-smoke hot dogs, but to a hungry caller it feels like an eternity.
“People coming in, why? Because they get what they’ve been dreaming about. See, after you have one of those famous, whatever you’ve ordered there, and you start to dream about it days later . . .”
Then there is silence, and Cosby reminds the caller that “you’re on hold at Ben’s Chili Bowl.”
Yes. Every time you are put on hold while making an order at the beloved U Street institution, you will hear a message from the legendary actor and comedian. Cosby, 76, is perhaps the most famous and most loyal fan of Ben’s Chili Bowl. He is scheduled to help mark its 55th anniversary with a news conference and celebration at the restaurant Thursday.
Ben’s, founded by Virginia and Ben Ali on Aug. 22, 1958, has no shortage of famous fans. A mural outside features President Obama, Cosby, broadcaster Donnie Simpson and the late Chuck Brown — all connoisseurs of the half-smoke.
The range of A-listers who have stopped by Ben’s is impressive. Actors Denzel Washington and Chris Tucker, the singer Bono and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy have all made appearances. In the early days, according to Ben’s, guests included Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and even Martin Luther King Jr.
But it is Cosby who is literally the voice of Ben’s. (“We didn’t even ask him to do it,” Virginia Ali said of the on-hold message.) And it is Cosby who helped launch the famous chili-dog stand to greater national recognition.
“You should really demand that Webster and all of those other books, even the thesauruses, under consistency they should say ‘Ben’s,’ ” Cosby tells Ben’s patrons on the phone. “Because since 1958, and I was there . . .”
Cosby was indeed there, all the time, according to Virginia. The future comedian was living in the area while enlisted in the Navy. Whether it was taking his future wife, Camille, on dates or showing up to inhale multiple half-smokes, Cosby grew to love Ben’s.
In September 1985, the comedian gave a news conference at Ben’s to celebrate the first of five consecutive seasons in which “The Cosby Show” was ranked No. 1 in Nielsen ratings.
“That launched us into the national spotlight,” said Kamal Ali, one of Ben and Virginia’s three sons, all of whom are involved in the business.
“The neighborhood [regulars] had to eventually give up their seats to the tourists,” Virginia said.
The Ali family makes sure Cosby is never without access to a Ben’s fix.
“I’ve physically driven half-smokes to him to New York, Solomons Island, Richmond,” said Nizam Ali, another Ali son.
Nizam recalled the time Cosby called with a request for L. Douglas Wilder’s inauguration as mayor of Richmond in 2005: “It’s 11:30 a.m. on a Sunday. Someone called saying, ‘Hey, I’m calling for Mr. Cosby. He was wondering if he could get two dozen half-smokes down to Richmond.’”
Cosby wanted them by 1:30 p.m.
“He said, ‘Mom, what do I do?’ ” Virginia recalled. “I said, ‘You going to have to go to Richmond, that’s what you going to do.’”
Nizam and his wife, Jyotika, cooked the half-smokes, wrapped them up and got to Richmond in time.
“We saw him and Wilder,” Nizam Ali remembered. “[Cosby] said: ‘Don’t go right back. Here’s the key to my suite.’ He was really hospitable.”
Cosby only had to wait a few hours for half-smoke delivery to Richmond, and he probably doesn’t have to wait on hold when he calls Ben’s. But his voice is there, keeping other half-smoke fans company.
“Did you know that we have a book?” Cosby asks callers stuck on hold. “Well, I say ‘we’ because I’m in it. I’m in the book. It tells the history of Ben’s Chili Bowl, so I think it’s very important for you to have.”
That history goes something like this:
Before it was Ben’s Chili Bowl, it was the Minnehaha Theater. Fifty-five years ago, and a few months before they got married, Ben and Virginia Ali opened the doors to Ben’s Chili Bowl.
The business has a few modern touches, but the counter, stools and booths are original, from 1958. When you first enter Ben’s, an Industrial Bank ATM is on the immediate left. Customers familiarize themselves with the ATM when they pull out their credit cards. “Cash only,” the cashier will say.
Virginia was working at the Industrial Bank of Washington as a teller when she met Ben. They later were formally introduced through mutual friends and married on Oct. 10, 1958, almost a month after founding the restaurant.
“He was a character, wasn’t he? He was everything,” Virginia said about Ben, who died in 2009. A mural from their wedding photo was added to the restaurant’s new establishment, Ben’s Next Door. Ben’s has also expanded to Nationals Park and FedEx Field.
Ben’s stayed opened during the city’s most tumultuous years. The riots in the 1960s after King’s assassination, the drugs in the 1970s, and the construction of the U Street-Cardozo Metro station in the ’80s closed every other business, but not Ben’s.
“If we can physically get here, we’re open,” Virginia said.
Now — thanks in large part, the Alis say, to Cosby putting it on the national map — Ben’s is a must-see for visitors to Washington.
Aly Nolan, 31, a lawyer from Virginia Beach, said she enjoyed her first visit to “iconic” Ben’s this week.
“She came here yesterday, too,” her friend revealed.
“I might have,” Nolan said, though she clarified that her first Ben’s trip was two days earlier. “It’s good!” she said.
For Bernadette Halton, known as Peaches, Ben’s has been the “only job I’ve ever had.” Halton, 53, has worked at Ben’s since 1977. She said she “wasn’t really planning on speaking” at the news conference Thursday, but Cosby insisted. The guest list for the anniversary celebration is still in flux, but, as Nizam said, “You never know what’s going to pop off at Ben’s Chili Bowl.”