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

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009; A01

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.

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.

In 1968, when riots and fires devastated swaths of downtown Washington, the offices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were across the street from the Chili Bowl. Mr. Ali was able to keep his restaurant open during the height of the unrest, serving protesters, police officers and firefighters alike. According to his family, Mr. Ali used a bar of soap to write "Soul Brother" on the window. The restaurant was untouched through the riots.

As the neighborhood deteriorated and other businesses shut down throughout the 1970s and '80s, Ben's Chili Bowl stayed open, but with shorter hours. As drug dealing proliferated nearby, Virginia Ali told The Washington Post in 2003, the restaurant stopped selling cakes and pies because addicts were drawn in by the sweets. The D.C. police conducted surveillance on drug dealers from an upstairs window in the restaurant.

After construction began on Metro's Green Line in the 1980s, Ben's Chili Bowl sat above a 60-foot crater and was one of the few active businesses on the street. The restaurant was reduced to only two employees, besides Mr. Ali's family, yet it continued to attract a loyal and international clientele.

After the Green Line opened in 1991, U Street became chic again, and Ben's Chili Bowl was at the center of the neighborhood's rebirth. Celebrities ranging from Shaquille O'Neal to Hillary Rodham Clinton began to show up, and Cosby sang the restaurant's praises on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

When Ted Koppel retired in 2005 as host of the ABC News show "Nightline," his farewell party was held at Ben's. The restaurant was featured in the films "The Pelican Brief" and "State of Play." By the late 1990s, no D.C. politician would dream of running for office without dropping into Ben's for a ritual half-smoke and milkshake. Former mayor Anthony A. Williams mentioned the restaurant in an inaugural address and called Ben's the "restaurant where my constituents would most likely run into me."

Former mayor and current D.C. Council member Marion S. Barry first visited the Chili Bowl in 1966.

"I'll tell you how much of an institution Ben's Chili Bowl is," Barry told The Post in 1998. While visiting Accra, the capital of Ghana, Barry met the city's mayor, who was an alumnus of Howard University. "The first thing he said: 'Glad to have you in Accra. Is Ben's Chili Bowl still there?' "

Mahaboob Ben Ali was born June 13, 1927, and grew up in San Juan, Trinidad. His grandparents were from northern India.

In 1945, Mr. Ali came to the United States as a student.

"I came here to become a doctor," he said in a February interview with the News India-Times. "I knew Shakespeare, Chaucer, Wordsworth. I had studied in the British system. I could quote any of the poets."

While studying at the University of Nebraska, he said, he fell down an elevator shaft and broke his back. After months of convalescence, he attended four other colleges before graduating from Howard. He dropped out of Howard's dental school, then waited tables, ran an import business, sold real estate and drove a taxi. Even after opening Ben's Chili Bowl, he held other jobs, most notably as a motivational speaker, teaching sales skills to military officers and others.

In case any of his three sons took over Ben's Chili Bowl, Mr. Ali gave them all the middle name of Ben. His two younger sons, Kamal and Nizam, now operate the restaurant, a location at Nationals Park and a recently opened annex, Ben's Next Door.

In addition to his wife and sons, survivors include a son, Haidar Ali, a Los Angeles musician who performs under the name Sage Infinity; a brother; two sisters; and three grandchildren.

When Mr. Ali and Virginia Rollins were married October 10, 1958, she converted to his Muslim faith. Although Mr. Ali was reluctant to admit it in public, he firmly obeyed the Islamic prohibition on pork. Throughout his life, he never tasted the hot dogs and half-smokes that made his restaurant famous.

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