Organizers gathered there to plan the March on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. stopped by. Stokely Carmichael was a regular. Marion Barry and Jesse Jackson plotted their political campaigns in its backroom. And President Barack Obama enjoyed its specialty, the half-smoke.
In six decades of slinging hot dogs and burgers, Ben’s Chili Bowl has been a place to meet as often as it has been a place to eat. All the while, its legendary jukebox has blared soul and go-go music while customers groove in the aisles between tables.
But Wednesday, on Ben’s Chili Bowl’s 60th anniversary, its patrons were dancing in the street, celebrating a restaurant that has endured even when so much around it has changed.
The birthday block party shut down a stretch of U Street NW and drew a crowd of the District’s most prominent politicians and personalities. Jackson, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and D.C. Council members all took turns paying tribute to Virginia Ali, 84, and her late husband, Ben, the founders of the D.C. landmark.
“They’ve been the linchpin, the anchor of this community,” said Tony Perkins, a longtime local newscaster and former weatherman for Good Morning America.
Bowser unveiled new signs dubbing the street in front of the restaurant Ben’s Chili Bowl Way, and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) named the day for Ben’s.
“Ben’s Chili Bowl is an icon of Washington, D.C.,” Mendelson said.
Ben Ali, who died in 2009, and his then-fiancée, Virginia, opened Ben’s Chili Bowl Aug. 22, 1958, and married a couple months later. Over the next half century, they weathered some of the city’s most trying times from behind their restaurant’s counter.
As U Street burned in the 1968 riots that followed King’s assassination, Ben’s Chili Bowl stood unharmed. Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, asked the restaurant to stay open during the riots and past curfew.
The restaurant served food to black activists, firefighters and police officers trying to calm the city.
Marie Davenport was on U Street that night, she recalled from Ben’s backroom during the block party. She remembers fire, smoke and yelling. She was scared.
“But when it all settled, the Chili Bowl was still there,” Davenport said.
In the 70s and 80s, when the crack epidemic made the surrounding neighborhood one of the city’s most dangerous, the restaurant was a safe haven.
Then came the Green Line. From 1986 to 1991, Metro construction carved a 60-foot canyon in the street that cut off nearly all traffic to the area’s shops. Ben’s was the only business on its block to survive.
Ben’s Chili Bowl is one of a small cadre of stores to outlast decades of challenge and change on U Street. Along with Industrial Bank and Lee’s Flower Shop, Ben’s remains a monument to the strip’s days as “Black Broadway,” when it was a social and cultural hub for the city’s African American community.
“This birthday is a celebration of D.C.’s character,” said Bernard Demczuk, chair of Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation and the restaurant’s de facto historian. “It’s a celebration of black history, black culture and black resilience.”
Letha Blount was there when Ben’s opened in 1958. Now 88, she said she was determined to be there again for its 60th anniversary.
“Today’s a homecoming,” she said, with a plate of fries on a tray in front of her. “When you come down U Street, you see history.” And few places have history like Ben’s, Blount said.
Ben’s 60th celebration is also about those longtime customers who stuck it out through the toughest years, Demczuk said.
Yet it is those loyalists — especially members of Shaw’s historically black community — who have been hit hardest by the rapid gentrification that is transforming the neighborhood yet again and pricing out many of the residents who lived through its darkest days.
In 1970, African Americans made up 90 percent of the population in Shaw and the U Street corridor, according to U.S. Census data. But by 2010, the neighborhood was just 30 percent black, while the white population had risen to more than 50 percent. Upscale condominium developments sprung up all around Ben’s, fetching mid-six figures for a one-bedroom unit.
“The cityscape is changing; we’re losing a lot of that cultural vibrancy,” said Shellée Haynesworth, the creator of Black Broadway on U, a digital media project to preserve the street’s history. “D.C. is starting to look like the suburbs.”
Haynesworth, who is now 55, has been going to Ben’s since she was a toddler, and she said the restaurant is key to reminding the neighborhood of its history.
But Demczuk, a former Barry aide who has taught courses about African-American history and culture at George Washington University and School Without Walls, does not like the word “gentrification.” It makes young people the enemy and black people the victims, he said.
The wealthy newcomers are not the enemy, Demczuk said — they are customers, too, and Ben’s is still doing well today. The business has expanded, opening new locations on H Street NE and in Rosslyn, along with stands in National Airport, FedEx Field and Nationals Park. Ben’s Upstairs and Ben’s Next Door, which offers dishes such as $14 cauliflower and organic white cheese grits, are the Alis’ answers to the hip nightlife scenes on H and U Streets.
The family is trying to adapt to the District’s hyper-competitive restaurant market, said Nizam Ali, who, with his brothers Kamal, Sage and their spouses, now run the restaurant the elder Alis created. With the cost of doing business rising, Nizam Ali said it’s vital that people support local businesses.
The Ali family owns the U Street buildings that house Ben’s Chili Bowl and Ben’s Next Door and they’re not going anywhere, Nizam Ali said. The brothers - Nizam is 48, Kamal is 56 and Sage is 58 - intend to keep the business in the family.
Today, Ben’s Chili Bowl is one of just a few places in Shaw where people from all walks of life come together, said Derek Hyra, a professor at American University and author of a 2017 book about gentrification in that neighborhood.
“Ben’s Chili Bowl symbolizes the best of mixed-race, mixed-income D.C.,” Hyra writes in “Race, Class and Politics in the Cappuccino City.”
This is the way it has always been, said Kamal Ali. At the block party, he read a note one of the restaurant’s longtime customers sent him that morning.
“You not only fed us but you brought us together as a community to show that no matter who you are or where you came from, we could all sit at the same table and treat each other respectfully,” the note read.
“This says it best,” Ali said.