Ben's Chili Bowl donates papers, artifacts to GWU's Africana Research Center

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 8:01 PM

An old, stained menu and a photograph of President-elect Obama on his first visit to Ben's Chili Bowl are among the documents from the Washington landmark restaurant getting a permanent home at George Washington University.

The Ali family, which opened the U Street restaurant in 1958, is donating papers, artifacts and photographs to the university's Africana Research Center on Wednesday.

Ben Ali, who with his wife, Virginia, started the business with a $5,000 loan, died in October 2009.

"We always knew we were part of history. We had been open so long, and through so many events," said Kamal Ali, one of the couple's sons. "But after Bill Cosby had a press conference in 1986 at Ben's, ever since then it became a landmark place."

Family members, sitting around a table in the university library, chimed in with other milestones. They recalled when Ben's was featured on CNN. "The story was two minutes, 45 seconds, and you couldn't get in the door for three weeks," Nizam Ali said.

"Most of our history is highlights. We have never been robbed or broken into. It has all been special, especially the community support we have had all these years," said Virginia Ali, the silver-haired matriarch. And to hear her three sons talk, she's been a pivotal mother figure for everyone who walks through the restaurant's doors.

Besides their regular customers, many famous entertainers stopped by after performing at one of the clubs along U Street.

Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine and Cab Calloway. "Nat King Cole could perform downtown, but we couldn't go. He would come to Ben's after the shows," Virginia Ali said.

Cosby discovered the chili dogs when he was in the Navy and taped a skit on the hold line of the restaurant's telephone. Today's celebrities, including Chris Rock and Serena Williams, have stopped by. Crews from "Pelican Brief" and "State of Play" filmed there.

The 1968 riots almost destroyed the neighborhood, but Ben's survived. "I remember as a child during the riots, there were a few neighborhood guys who protected the place. They said, 'This is our place.' " Haidar Ali said.

For a time, Virginia Ali said, people were afraid to go to U Street, and the open-air drug markets in the 1970s devastated the block. Then in the late 1980s, Metro construction shut down car traffic. She had a sign, "This Way to Ben's," posted outside and every morning made sure it was still visible. "The only way to survive during the down period was owning our own real estate," Kamal Ali said.

Then came the late 1990s and the revitalization of the U Street and Shaw neighborhoods, with new nightclubs and restaurants, shops and condominiums. Ben's was again a destination and business leader along the corridor. "The first sign was the young folks, who didn't have the memory of U Street as a bad place," Kamal Ali said. The restaurant eventually expanded, opening Ben's Next Door.

"This is many stories. The story of immigration and how Ben Ali came from Trinidad. The story of the 1968 riots and how Ben's didn't get touched," said Meredith Evans Raiford, the special collections director at the Africana Research Center. "It was important for us to have a reflection of the family, as well as the business."

The library has designed one case with Ben's artifacts and five wall panels to tell the story. The case contains one of the 6,000 calendars that Ben Ali had printed up as a tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination. "Just to know all of this is going to be preserved is special," Nizam Ali said.

The research center, in the Gelman Library on H Street NW, is open to the public Monday through Friday.

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