50 Years of Friends and Chili

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

It's hard for Nizam Ali to pick his favorite celebrity sighting at his family's restaurant. There was the day he got a call that U2's Bono would be arriving in 10 minutes. And the day Russell Crowe arrived to film a scene for the upcoming movie "State of Play."

What Ali likes best about Ben's Chili Bowl is that he never knows just whom he'll meet. "Sometimes you look up and you see Charles Rangel in line. One time you're on the phone and Chris Rock walks in," says Ali, one of the founders' three sons. "Sometimes it's someone from Hawaii or London who's heard about the place and made the effort to come in."

This week, Ben's celebrates its 50th anniversary with a block party, gala and concert, each designed to elicit memories. Bill Cosby, who has been coming to Ben's for 49 of its 50 years, will emcee a gala at the Lincoln Theatre on Thursday night that will also include Washington luminaries Roberta Flack and Dick Gregory. On Friday, a block party will follow a news conference featuring Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, restaurant founders Ben and Virginia Ali and others. On Sunday, there will be a free concert at the 9:30 club featuring EU, Trouble Funk, Mambo Sauce and other bands. A book, "Ben's Chili Bowl: 50 Years of a Washington, D.C., Landmark," which celebrates the Ali family and the U Street neighborhood, hit the shelves Monday. Nizam Ali is a co-author.

The Alis opened "the bowl" on Aug. 22, 1958. In the early 1960s, when U Street was considered "Black Broadway," it played host to the likes of Duke Ellington, Martin Luther King Jr. and Cosby. The restaurant survived the 1968 riots and the severe downturn that followed. Though Ben and Virginia are retired, almost everyone else in the Ali family still pitches in. The counter, booths and stools are all original, and the chili is still made from the same recipe.

Ali and his brother Kamal are committed to keeping Ben's true to its roots. But they are making changes. In October, they will open a bar next door to Ben's, tentatively named Next Door. The new space won't try to duplicate the experience at Ben's but will complement it, Ali says: "You'll be able to get a beer, and maybe you'll be able to get a salad, because you can't get a salad or liquor at Ben's."

And you will be able to get one of the famous half-smokes or chili dogs at the new 50-foot-long bar.

"We owe our 50 years to every customer that's come in and every person who's gone out of their way to spread the word about Ben's," Ali says. "It's a humbling feeling. It's taken the city to keep us here."

Ben's Chili Bowl, 1213 U St., 202-667-0909. For more information on the celebrations, visit http://www.benschilibowl.com.

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