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.’”