Despite Death, It's Business as Usual at Ben's Chili Bowl

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009; A08

Over the hiss of the grill and the old Al Green song blaring out of the jukebox, Jermaine Rhoden threw himself into a high-volume lunchtime discussion about football at Ben's Chili Bowl on Thursday.

"I'm for the Lions," Rhoden was saying in between bites of a chili-slathered hot dog.

"You're 1 and 19," Ben's manager Maurice Harcum said as he handed somebody a red plastic basket filled with chili fries. "One win!"

Everybody laughed, talk shifted back to the Redskins and the volume spiked even higher.

If you were looking for a wake, you had come to the wrong place: The afternoon after Ben Ali died at 82, it was business as usual at Ben's Chili Bowl, the landmark restaurant he founded on U Street NW.

The air was thick with grease and smoke and R&B and spirited talk of sports and music and politics, as always. The cash-only establishment with the old black-and-white checkerboard floor was filled with the usual mix of clergymen and ladies who lunch and middle-aged men in sharp suits and students in saggy jeans. Also in attendance were some pasty-legged tourists who had heard of Ben's but apparently hadn't heard that it's best not to squeeze a party of four husky Costco-generation adults into a booth that hasn't been expanded since Eisenhower was president.

Opened on Aug. 22, 1958, Ben's Chili Bowl would become a greasy spoon-cum-community center for African Americans. Its pull has always been more about the hang than the hot dogs.

"It's always a party in here," said Evan Hall, 23, a Miami transplant.

Frank Smith, a former D.C. Council member who runs the African American Civil War Museum across the street, was standing near the jukebox (three plays for $1, 18 for $5), nodding. "There's magic in Ben's Chili Bowl," he said. "Ben Ali created this atmosphere and made it a place where people wanted to gather. A community is a place of shared experiences, and this is where a lot of people love to share their experiences."

It's possible that more Washingtonians have come through Ben's Chili Bowl than have been inside the U.S. Capitol.

It has survived riots and crack and the great Green Line tear-up of U Street, not to mention gentrification, which has added some salt to Ben's demographic pepper, although the clientele is still majority black.

It will survive Ali's passing, too.

The founder hadn't exactly been a fixture at his famous establishment in recent years. He might drop in on his way home from the racetrack, but he had turned the business over to the kids, who were expanding the empire. There's a new, more upscale restaurant next door and concessions at Nationals Park and more space at the flagship, which even offers veggie and turkey burgers.

In the back room, beneath the photos of famous Ben's customers (Bill Cosby, President Obama, Dr. Dre, Cornel West, Serena Williams, Chris Tucker), Ben Ali's daughter-in-law, Sonya, spoke about the business. She was worried about getting the schedule done for Sunday, and she pulled out a few bills to pay the cake lady.

The calls had been trickling in, usually from older customers who were just trying to confirm the news. Did Mr. Ben pass? I'm so sorry.

"People are sad for us, but I think people are also happy we're open," she said. "They're happy they can come in and get something to eat."

Out front, council member Kwame R. Brown was wiping ketchup or chili (or both) from his natty orange tie.

"This is a day for a Ben's dog," Brown said. "I had to stop what I was doing and get a dog."

At the counter, Harcum, the mountain of a manager, was bellowing about the size of his gut. More loud laughter. Thursday's crowd was a little bigger than normal, he said, more "like a Friday or Saturday."

"We're just carrying on the same way," he said. "That's exactly how Mr. Ali would want it. It's business as usual."

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