The talk inside Ben's Chili Bowl restaurant is as hot as the two-alarm chili that Ben's wife, Virginia Ali, has served up. Standing at one end of the counter is Jeff Cohen, a real estate developer, and Raphael Urciolo, who has real estate to sell.
Cohen says to him, "You got anything between Seventh and 15th streets? Anything at all. I want it."
Urciolo replies, "I got eight lots over at Fifth and New Jersey." Urciolo begins his sales pitch about how the properties extend to an alley, but Cohen cuts him off.
Cohen wants properties in the heart of the Shaw neighborhood, near the Green Line Metrorail stop, which is under construction.
On second thought, Urciolo says, he has a piece of property near 13th and U, but now Virginia Ali cuts him off. "I want that one. You can't have it, Jeff."
The business talk under way here is not quite on the scale that one might find at Mel Krupin's; no multimillion-dollar deals over chiliburgers.
But this is just the kind of bartering that's changing the face of what for years has been one of Washington's most depressed neighborhoods. When it comes to doing business in Shaw, you have to be at the right place at the right time, and on this day, the home of the half smoke is the place to be.
Cohen, 37, is out to restore the Shaw neighborhood single-handedly to its historic prominence as the center of local black entertainment and commerce. He already has the right to develop the old Manhattan Laundry building at 14th and W, the old Children's Hospital, the old Lincoln Theater, the old Thompson's Dairy and other properties in the area. But he wants more.
And Urciolo has more. Urciolo, who is in his seventies, is one of the last of the old-time real estate men who started poor but became well-to-do by buying cheap and selling for much more. He laughs when Cohen describes him as part of the "Italian Real Estate Mafia that owns the city."
"I am Greek," Urciolo smiles.
But he does have the land that many people want.
"I'll tell you what, Jeff, I'll make you a deal you can't refuse. I have a building and a lot on 13th Street and I'll give it to you for whatever the FHA appraises it at."
Cohen nods and make arrangements to go see the property. Virginia Ali shouts to the men, "Don't show him my building, Rafael."
The Alis are sitting pretty regardless of the outcome of this deal in the making because they own their property. One of the Green Line subway stops will open right across the street from the Chili Bowl, which opened in 1958. Ten years ago, Ben Ali closed part of the Chili Bowl's dining room because the neighborhood had declined badly and there were too few customers.
On Friday, the dining room will reopen, renamed the Minnehana, after Washington's first silent movie house, which was once located where the Chili Bowl is.
"The same way my wife is talking to Urciolo, I used to talk to the guy who owned this building, saying that one day I would buy it," said Ben Ali, who is 58. "It took about five years, but here we are and here we'll stay."
"I knew the area would rise up again," said Ali, who holds a master's degree in business administration and regularly buys and sells stocks. "Everything is born; everything rises up, levels off, declines, dies and starts again. All you need is patience."
A lot of people didn't have the patience and over the years sold their properties and moved away. But that was okay with people like Cohen and Urciolo, who picked up properties here and there and just waited for the right time when they could either sell or develop.
As Urciolo leaves the Chili Bowl to inspect some of his holdings, he spots a dime on the floor.
"The more people throw away, the more you make," he says as he pockets the change.