In the District, Ben’s Chili Bowl and Bill Cosby have long been linked.
A mural featuring him adorns the side of the historic U Street greasy spoon. A sign behind the counter says the legendary actor eats for free. And for decades, major events at Ben’s have been announced with the actor as emcee. When Ben’s opened its first outpost in Virginia last year, Cosby helped cut the ribbon.
But when the newest and biggest Ben’s opens Wednesday, it’s not clear whether Cosby will have his usual outsize imprint on the burgeoning Washington-area chain.
On walls packed with photos of celebrities and politicians who played lesser roles in securing Ben’s status in D.C. folklore — including Bono, Chris Rock, Jesse Jackson, Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Obama — no picture of Cosby was affixed to the wall Tuesday afternoon when a Washington Post reporter toured the new restaurant along the District’s booming H Street NE corridor.
And unlike past events, when Cosby’s appearance was touted by the restaurant’s owners, no one was saying on Tuesday whether the actor would be there.
Sonya Ali, who helps run Ben’s with her husband, brothers and sister-in-law, declined to comment on whether Cosby would attend. “We are only talking about the opening of Ben’s on H Street,” she said.
The issue is more complicated than that. Late last week, a picture of Cosby had been on the wall. But it was taken down. A family meeting ensued on Tuesday, and the management at Ben’s decided Cosby would have some place in the new restaurant before Wednesday’s grand opening.
“There is a presence of Cosby there,” says Vida Ali, daughter-in-law of the founders and spokeswoman for Ben’s Chili Bowl. “There is his presence as there is presence of other celebrities.”
The signs that the restaurant may be wrestling with whether to distance itself from Cosby come as newly unsealed court documents show that the actor acknowledged in a 2005 court deposition that he intended to give drugs to young women with whom he wanted to have sex.
Since last year, more than a dozen women have alleged that the actor long known as a benevolent father figure sexually assaulted them after they were rendered unconscious or incapacitated by unknown substances.
Repeated calls to Cosby’s agents this week have not been returned.
The Ali family has largely rebuffed calls to break ties with Cosby since the allegations surfaced last year, and the restaurant’s every move has been watched.
Last fall, as more women came forward, Vida Ali told the Washington City Paper that “Cosby is part of our family.”
In the spring, when a sign disappeared announcing that Cosby and the Obama family always eat free, she said it was just greasy and fell. It was placed, however, in a less conspicuous spot behind the original 1958 countertop that still runs the length of the U Street diner.
Wednesday’s opening marks a foray for Ben’s into another neighborhood with deep roots in the city’s African American culture that is undergoing rapid gentrification.
We’re going to embrace the community,” Sonya Ali said. “We’re very excited to go over there.”
Another Ben’s official at the restaurant Tuesday, Business Development and Real Estate Director Frank White, said they are not done hanging pictures, but the ones they are looking to add are historic images of H Street.
On the counter was a small stack of flyers of Ben’s “through the years” featuring photos from the 55th anniversary two years ago. Those flyers feature a small picture of Cosby, right below one of Obama.
Tim Carman contributed to this report.