Ben’s Chili Bowl namesake dies at age 82

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In a self-important city of steakhouses and expense accounts, Ben Ali, a modest man, found fame and fortune with a chili-topped half-smoke.

Mr. Ali’s Ben’s Chili Bowl, an unpretentious eatery that grew into a down-home D.C. cultural touchstone, brought together all races and classes, presidents and paupers, the locals and the tourists, around its menu of chili dogs, cheese fries and milk shakes.

Politicians, lobbyists, athletes and rock stars have sat alongside bike messengers and Midwestern tourists on the red-vinyl stools at the Chili Bowl, which survived the race riots of 1968 to become the most famous landmark on the city’s historic black corridor.

Mr. Ali, co-founder of Ben’s Chili Bowl, died Wednesday night of congestive heart failure. He was 82.

Founded by Mr. Ali and his wife, Virginia, in August 1958, the restaurant — a U Street neighborhood landmark known nationally for Washington’s signature delicacy, the half-smoke — daily drew a diverse clientele that was a microcosm of the city it serves.

In January, President Obama and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty stopped in for half-smokes. After the 2008 presidential election, the Ali family put up a sign that reads: “Who eats free at Ben’s: — Bill Cosby — The Obama Family.”

Comedian Bill Cosby was perhaps its most famous regular, first visiting while in the Navy and stationed in Bethesda shortly after the restaurant opened a half-century ago. Mr. Cosby courted his wife, Camille, at Ben’s Chili Bowl. The Ali family attributes much of its success to Mr. Cosby, who thrust the establishment into the national spotlight during his top-rated television series, “The Cosby Show.”

“Ben was a good friend. This is very sad,” Mr. Cosby said Thursday.

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The eatery even was honored with a congressional resolution, sponsored by Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, to mark its 50th anniversary last year.

While “many entrepreneurs have come and gone, the Alis and that familiar long, white counter with red-vinyl stools have remained stalwart and true,” the resolution noted.

Scenes from Hollywood productions such as the “The Pelican Brief” and “State of Play” used Ben’s for some of their key D.C. scenes.

Mr. Ali, a native of Trinidad, came to the United States at age 18 to become a dentist, but a back injury prevented him from pursuing that dream. He tried several jobs before landing a position at Ann’s Hot Dogs.

He met his wife, Virginia, who had worked as a bank teller, and together they opened the restaurant a week before they were married.

“It was somewhat of a shock that he died,” said Sonya Ali, wife of Mr. Ali’s son Kamal, who manages the business. “He had a procedure done yesterday and he did well. He was hungry and wanted to go home.”

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