Ben's Chili: The Bottomless Bowl of U Street

Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2003; 8:55 AM

There seemed to be no empty buildings along U Street back in 1958, when Ben and Virginia Ali first started serving chili dogs and chili burgers at their red-and-white storefront next door to the Lincoln Theatre in Northwest Washington.

Instead, there were doctors and lawyers and funeral homes, shops and theaters, barbershops and clubs -- all owned or operated by African Americans who in the dying days of segregation had little access to other areas of downtown Washington.

"This was black folks' Main Street," said Butch Snipes, 68, a lifelong neighborhood resident. "This was where everything happened."

Now 45 years have passed, and U Street has changed, and changed and changed again.

The bustling storefronts became scarred shells -- some abandoned when integration opened up opportunities elsewhere, others shuttered when riots and crime descended on the street after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Later, scores of buildings were bulldozed to make way for the construction of Metro's Green Line, and workers tore up stretches of U Street, keeping out many of those still willing to walk past the drug dealers.

Revival eventually took root. A few crumbling structures -- the Lincoln Theatre among them -- were restored to their original grandeur. Some more-modest spaces reopened as chic shops and cafes. Makeovers for dozens more are on the drawing boards.

The wide-open parcels left by the Metro construction are buzzing with crews and equipment and sprouting new offices, shops and high-end apartments. Condos are selling faster that they can be built, for $300,000, $600,000 and more.

Through it all, the Ali family has kept the grills going at Ben's Chili Bowl, sustaining a landmark eatery known throughout the area and -- thanks to celebrity fans including Bill Cosby -- the world.

Tomorrow, the city will close the 1200 block of U Street for an all-day anniversary party, with live radio broadcasts, speeches and visits by politicians and special guests (yes, Cosby is expected), and the taping of a documentary: "Ben's Chili Bowl -- A Story of the Nation's Capital."

The mood will be festive, but there will also be an undercurrent of concern. It buzzes almost constantly among the old-timers on U Street these days. They know that Starbucks and Quiznos will soon open across the street from Ben's, and they can't help but notice how often new faces outnumber familiar ones, on the sidewalks and in the Bowl's red, vinyl-upholstered booths.

"It's just, I guess, a gut uncertainty, because the neighborhood has gone through so much already," said Nizam Ali, 33, the youngest of the three Ali sons, who runs the restaurant with the middle son, Kamal.

He hastens to add that he is thrilled to have new patrons on U Street, most who seem to enjoy the artery-clogging food at Ben's as much as the generations that came before. The nostalgia, however, remains.

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