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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.

"You look at a community that's been there, and now that community is gone. And that's unfortunate," Ali said. "It's kind of like saying goodbye to an old friend . . . or an old memory."

A half-smoke (a plump pork-and-beef sausage) went for 20 cents in the early days. A hot dog cost 15 cents. The sodas were O-So brand, orange or grape, served in the bottle. Despite the restaurant's name, when it opened Aug. 22, 1958, Ben's spicy chili was served only atop hot dogs, half-smokes or hamburgers.

Bowls of chili came later, and such menu items as vegetarian chili and turkey burgers showed up only in the past few years.

From the beginning, the booths and the stools at the counter were full at lunchtime. In the evenings, the orders for carryout piled up.

There were always some white customers -- music lovers who came to U Street to hear Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and other greats perform at the legendary clubs and staff members from Children's Hospital, which back then was located around the corner.

But mostly, U Street and Ben's Chili Bowl were filled with black Washingtonians. The atmosphere, Virginia Ali recalled, was like a never-ending family reunion. She couldn't run down the block to the drugstore or to the bank to make a deposit without being stopped by someone she knew.

"It was a very close, comfortable, friendly neighborhood," she said.

She had met Ben Ali, an immigrant from Trinidad who had dropped out of dental school at Howard University, while she was working as a teller at the Industrial Bank of Washington, at 11th and U.

When he launched his restaurant at 1213 U St., in the old Minnehaha silent movie theater that most recently had been a pool hall, she quit her job to help out. They were married a couple of months later.

Virginia converted to Islam, her husband's religion. She worked the day shift; he worked evenings and nights. Haidar was born two years after the Chili Bowl opened; Kamal two years after that. By the time Nizam was born, in 1970, the restaurant was 12 years old.

Much had changed on U Street.

The Bowl was one of the few businesses to stay open as riots engulfed the neighborhood in 1968, triggered on the bleak April night when King was slain. Stokely Carmichael, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, used the restaurant as an outreach center, and a place where his activists could get something to eat.

As the years passed, Ben's continued to operate, even when drug peddling became the main activity on the block and, after that, when Metro construction dislodged even the dealers and the junkies.

The Alis stopped selling homemade cakes and pies during the worst years of the drug epidemic, because the sugary treats drew addicts to the restaurant, Virginia Ali said. They closed early, because even the most faithful customers wouldn't come onto U Street after dark.

When dealers started making surreptitious sales inside the restaurant, Virginia Ali said, she arranged for D.C. police to set up surveillance through a window in the upstairs office. Several arrests later, the young men retreated to the corner.

The Chili Bowl was the only business on the block to survive construction of the Green Line, which dragged on from 1986 until 1991.

Customers had no place to park except the seedy alleys off V Street, and only a sliver of sidewalk remained open outside the front door. But the Reeves Municipal Building had opened at 14th and U, and the Alis had faith that the corridor would come back.

But they never envisioned that the neighborhood once known as the Black Broadway would become one of the most sought-after residential areas for a new generation of affluent, young urban dwellers -- mostly white, many gay and few with much knowledge of what U Street once was.

"I am just in awe of what's happening here, and the prices . . .," Virginia Ali said.

There are the Harrison Square townhouses, built a few years ago where Children's Hospital once stood, which at first sold for about $200,000 but now go for $500,000 or more. There are two-bedroom condominiums being sold for $400,000 and rumors that the penthouses in some of the buildings under construction are on the market for twice that amount.

Virginia Ali said it's about time the area made a comeback. "This is the nation's capital. It never should have been allowed to get run down for 25 years," she said.

Yet she also worries about the poor residents who have survived all these years, but now are threatened by skyrocketing real estate taxes and rent. There are efforts to preserve affordable housing and mom-and-pop businesses in the neighborhood, and to include a few lower-priced units in new residential developments. But the gentrification is unmistakable.

"I'm on the board of directors at FLOC," she continued, referring to the nonprofit group For Love of Children, which offers after-school programs and summer camps right up the road. "I am often wondering, who are we going to serve in 10 years?"

The clientele at Ben's is eclectic and unpredictable -- black and white, young and old, yuppie and working-class. The construction crews show up for breakfast. The club crowd comes in after midnight.

"Sometimes you look up and the whole place is white," said Virginia Ali. "And then 45 minutes later you look up and the whole place is black.."

Now 70, she still spends many hours at the restaurant each week, although Kamal and Nizam are in charge. Ben, 76, usually keeps his distance, but he will be there for tomorrow's celebration. Haidar, a musician, lives in California and will not attend. He is close to the family, Nizam said, but not to the business.

A little-publicized fact about the Ali family is this: Their Muslim faith forbids them to eat pork. "I've never eaten a half-smoke in my life," Nizam said.

The restaurant has the same 1950s feel it has always had, although the sodas come in plastic cups. The dessert cases are back but no longer sit on the counter, and the jukebox features CDs.

Workers this week rushed to finish a rear addition, designed to accommodate the tourist groups and large parties that the Alis often have had to turn away (not always, however -- one loyal customer has had her birthday party at Ben's for 20 years, insisting on bringing her friends there even when Metro construction made access almost impossible).

Virginia Ali said she is talking with local historians about setting up a photo gallery in the new room that documents U Street's history.

It is important, she explained quietly, that those who are arriving here understand all that used to be.

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