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Ben's Celebrates Chili Power

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008; B01

It was 1996, and Nizam Ali had just gotten his law degree. Instead of heading to the courtroom, he had another idea: He wanted to help run the family business.

Ali told his father, Ben, that if he couldn't double the revenue at Ben's Chili Bowl within a year, he'd fall back on that legal career. To meet his goal, he went well beyond the walls of the landmark restaurant on U Street NW. He became a promoter, visiting radio stations with free hot dogs, hamburgers and half-smokes -- all covered in Ben's trademark spicy chili. Radio personalities talked up the food, and the legend of the Chili Bowl grew.

Sales surged during that year as Nizam and his older brother, Kamal, oversaw the restaurant's operations -- so much so that Ben and his wife, Virginia, decided to step back and leave the restaurant they had founded in the hands of their sons.

This week, the District's most famous neighborhood diner turns 50. The family is hosting a free gala tonight at the Lincoln Theatre, with celebrities including Bill Cosby and Roberta Flack. That will be followed by a street festival tomorrow in front of the restaurant, at 1213 U St. NW, and a musical tribute Sunday down the street at the 9:30 club.

When they aren't behind the counter flipping burgers or scooping chili, the Ali brothers are figuring out ways to capitalize on the Ben's brand. They launched a line of souvenir baseball caps, key chains and tote bags. The Alis also helped with a book on the place's history and set up a Web site, http://benschilibowl.com. And they struck a deal to sell Ben's fare at the Washington Nationals' new ballpark.

In October, the brothers will take over the building next door and turn it into a full bar, so patrons can enjoy Ben's chili and dogs with a beer or mixed drink, big screen TVs and possibly live bands.

"We're stepping up the game," said Kamal Ali, 46. Last year, Ben's took in about $1.6 million in revenue, up from less than $1 million about 10 years ago.

The brothers credit generations of loyal patrons and their employees for their success. "It took a village to raise this place. Everyone in this community had a hand in this place," said Nizam Ali, 38.

A third brother, Haidar, 48, is a musician and lives in California.

The walls at Ben's are covered with photos of famous customers, including actors Denzel Washington and Danny Glover, tennis star Serena Williams and musicians Bono and Chuck Brown. The restaurant has been featured on Oprah Winfrey's show (twice), CNN, the Travel Channel and the Food Network, as well as in travel publications across the country.

Virginia Ali can recall the day she got a phone call from a woman in Texas who wanted to make a reservation for her vacation in Washington -- three months away. "I laughed and told her: 'Honey, come on in. It's just a greasy spoon,' " she recounted through a hint of Virginia accent.

By far, Ben's biggest celebrity fan is Cosby, who will serve as master of ceremonies for tonight's Lincoln Theatre event. The comic helped propel Ben's to the national spotlight in 1985 when he held a news conference there to talk about his No. 1 television program, "The Cosby Show."

Cosby became a fan when he was in the Navy and stationed in Bethesda in 1958. During that time, he was a regular at jazz clubs on U Street. And he also took his soon-to-be wife, Camille, who was a student at the University of Maryland, to Ben's on late-night dates, where he would eat as many as six half-smokes at a time. Cosby likens a Ben's half-smoke, a plump beef and pork sausage, to a fine wine.

"You can describe it the same way a wine connoisseur would be able to tell difference between a pinot noir and a merlot," Cosby said in a telephone interview. "When you bite into a half-smoke, the skin and the way the texture and firmness and the toppings you can get on it . . . "

His voice trailed off, as if he was caught in the memory of the taste.

Aside from the food, what makes Ben's stand out, Cosby and others say, is that it's as if time stood still. Ben's has the same layout as when it opened Aug. 22, 1958, aside from an expanded seating section in the back and a kitchen put in five years ago. It has its original counters, booths and stools.

Ben Ali, an immigrant from Trinidad, met his wife when she was a teller at nearby Industrial Bank. When Ali opened the restaurant, Virginia joined him in the venture. They were married that October.

Now 75, Virginia Ali finishes her husband's sentences and fills in the holes in stories she has heard him tell so many times. Until recently, she served as a waitress and a greeter. Lately, she spends most of her time at home caring for Ben, who is 81. The two act like love-struck teens as Ben Ali pinches, teases and whispers in his wife's ear and she giggles and lightly swats his arm.

Ben Ali came up with the idea for the restaurant when he saw how Americans loved to smother their french fries with ketchup. With his Caribbean taste buds, he thought that American foods were bland and that there was a market for spicy American dishes.

He tears up when he talks about his restaurant and his three sons, who all share the middle name Ben. "My whole life has been one happy life," Ali said, removing his glasses and wiping tears from his eyes.

For a restaurant to become such a landmark in the District is rare, and at times, it seemed that Ben's wouldn't survive. In 1968, many businesses were torched during the riots after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But Ben's remained opened and untouched, thanks largely to Stokely Carmichael, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which used the restaurant as a meeting place.

As the years passed, the area became riddled with crime and drugs. Faithful customers told Ali that they couldn't go to the restaurant anymore because their cars kept getting broken into. The construction of Metro's Green Line from 1986 to 1991 made it difficult for customers to venture into the area, which caused a lot of businesses to close. Then things began to turn around.

"We had the community support, and we survived. We didn't want to go to any other part of the city," Virginia Ali said.

Ben's is like a popular barbershop or beauty salon where regulars gather to gossip, laugh and joke. "It's very much like that, where a janitor sits next to a judge, who is sitting next to a junkie. Just random people having random conversations," Nizam Ali said.

James Jackson of Seat Pleasant has been going to the restaurant for 15 years. "You never know who you're going to run into," he said.

The morning crowd is dressed in business suits and uniforms, men and women sipping coffee and eating cheese grits or toast before heading to work. At lunch, it's mostly workers or tourists jamming the booths and tables. The dinner crowd is made up of folks who want a quick burger.

Weekends at 2 or 3 a.m., partygoers from nearby bars and nightclubs congregate for a quick meal or a handmade milkshake as Prince, Aretha Franklin or the Isley Brothers blare from the jukebox. Through it all, the restaurant's employees -- now totaling 25 -- joke, dance and pose for pictures with customers while taking orders and dishing out the food. They're led by Bernadette "Peaches" Halton, 48, a 30-year employee, who is said to be the only one outside the family to know the recipe for Ben's chili.

For about 40 years, most of Ben's clients were African Americans, who patronized the U Street corridor for decades. In the late 1950s, U Street was known as the "Black Broadway," thanks to frequent performances by such stars as Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.

As the demographics shifted, so did Ben's clientele. Within the past 10 years or so, it has become increasingly diverse and now includes more whites, Hispanics, Ethiopians and Asians. The customers include people from other countries who are visiting the District and want to get a taste of Ben's. Virginia Ali said Ben's is more of a "melting pot" now.

The changing demographics, along with higher property taxes, caused several black businesses on U Street to relocate or go out of business. Ben's has not only remained; it has thrived.

As Kamal Ali put it: "We had to adjust and stay true to form, and everyone has really embraced us."

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