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BEN ALI 1927-2009

Ben Ali, 82, Whose Chili Bowl Became a D.C. Landmark, Dies

Ben Ali, 82, the founder of Ben's Chili Bowl, a landmark D.C. eatery that has fed presidents, celebrities and the common folks of the city, died last night of congestive heart failure at his home in Washington. The lunchtime crowd and staff at the eatery remembers Ali's contributions to the community.

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009

If the rest of the world sees Washington as a place of large monuments and gleaming public buildings, many of the people who actually live in the city build their lives around smaller, more humble institutions. For them, one of the most important addresses in town is Ben's Chili Bowl, a simple diner famous for its down-home menu of chili, half-smokes and fries.

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Ben Ali, who founded the restaurant in 1958 and created its unmatched chili recipe, died Wednesday of congestive heart failure at his home in the District. He was 82.

His family-run diner on U Street NW has been one of the most enduring institutions of Washington, a place where families meet after church and where night owls come to talk, flirt and, not least, eat.

The landmark eatery opened when U Street was the city's glittering "Black Broadway," a strip of nightclubs and theaters that catered to Washington's black middle class and helped define the city's pulse and taste. It became a steadfast symbol of Washington's perseverance through good times and bad, feeding the dignitaries who came to Washington as well as the ordinary folks who call the District home.

In a statement, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty called Ben's Chili Bowl "one of the greatest treasures in the District of Columbia."

On Jan. 10, the restaurant received perhaps its greatest publicity boost when Fenty and president-elect Obama dropped by for a half-smoke -- a smoked sausage that is often called the signature food of Washington. Mindful of a sign that warned, "Who eats free at Ben's: Bill Cosby. No one else," Obama paid for his $12 tab with a $20 bill, leaving the change as a tip. The president's name has been added to Cosby's as the only patrons allowed to dine without paying.

Mr. Ali, a Trinidadian immigrant who had studied dentistry at Howard University, tried several careers before opening the diner with his Virginia-born fiancee, Virginia Rollins, on Aug. 22, 1958. They were married seven weeks later.

He thought Washington might be hungry for the kind of spicy dishes he had known while growing up in the Caribbean and cooked up the first batches of chili on his own. His recipe remains a closely guarded family secret.

At first, the chili was served only atop hot dogs, hamburgers and half-smokes. Mr. Ali's chili topping proved so popular that he began to serve it in bowls. This March, Bon App├ętit magazine ranked Ben's chili as the best in America.

"No reasonable discussion of great chili joints can take place without mention of this U Street institution, open since 1958," Andrew Knowlton wrote in the magazine.

Michael Stern, who with his wife, Jane, might be the country's foremost expert on down-home food, has called Ben's half-smoke "sensational" and the chili "positively addictive."

But it wasn't merely the food that made Ben's Chili Bowl a local institution. In its early days, residents of the surrounding Shaw neighborhood sat alongside entertainers Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington and Redd Foxx, and Ben's became a favorite late-night gathering place. Bill Cosby became a loyal customer in 1959, when he was in the Navy, and later courted his wife, former University of Maryland student Camille Hanks, at Ben's.

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