Ben’s Chili Bowl, a landmark in the nation’s capital along the U Street NW corridor, had been among the last public supporters of Bill Cosby. Amid accusations that the actor sexually assaulted dozens of women and revelations in court documents that Cosby admitted he intended to drug women with whom he wanted to have sex, the restaurant maintained a large colorful mural of the comedian on the facade of its flagship location.
Despite pressure, Ben’s Chili Bowl didn’t comment on the revelations, only saying that Cosby is a longtime friend and his face would remain.
But the restaurant, which opened in 1958, announced Thursday on its website that it painted over the mural, and Cosby’s face is no longer a visible presence in the popular U Street corridor. Cosby, however, wasn’t singled out: Portraits of former president Barack Obama, Go-Go music legend Chuck Brown and DJ Donnie Simpson also were covered by a fresh coat of paint.
In the announcement, the restaurant explained it was time to update the 5-year-old facade.
“Now, after five years of braving the elements, it’s time to refresh and repaint the mural and we want your input!” the website reads.
Virginia Ali, who runs the business with her children, said the decision to paint over these famous men wasn’t personal.
“It was looking bad,” she said, “and we figured it’s a new year, so why not get started.”
Cosby and the Obama family are famously the only people who eat free at Ben’s. It’s unclear whether those privileges still stand.
On its website, Ben’s Chili Bowl is asking customers to vote from a list of people whom they would like to see on the next mural. Cosby, Obama and Brown are contenders on the online ballot. Rapper Wale, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and former mayor Marion Barry Jr. are also included, as well as Anthony Bourdain and Gandhi.
Ali said that many of the people on the list have visited the restaurant in the past and have benefited the D.C. community.
President Donald Trump isn’t listed as a possible contender. Ali said that’s because he’s never stopped by for a signature half-smoke.
“Mr. Trump is new on the job,” Ali said.
Ben’s Chili Bowl became a local landmark after the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which decimated much of the U Street NW corridor and other parts of the city. Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, asked the restaurant to stay open during the riots and past curfew.
The restaurant was spared, and served food to black activists, firefighters and police officers trying to calm the city. In 2009, Mayor Adrian Fenty took then-President-elect Barack Obama to the restaurant, where he had a chili half-smoke and sweet tea.
Helena Andrews-Dyer contributed to this report.