- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ben’s Chili Bowl is a wildly successful milkshake-and-burger-serving, 50-year-old, celebrity-magnet restaurant on U Street owned by founders Ben and Virginia Ali.

How do you possibly follow that act if you are the Ali sons — Kamal and Nizam?

You open a place called Ben’s Next Door — literally next-door to Ben’s — and serve what the Bowl doesn’t serve — alcohol and fine-dining fare — and become a premier U Street sports-bar destination by lining the walls with flat-screen televisions.

“We’re trying to complement the Bowl,” says Nizam Ali, who co-owns Next Door with his brother. “But we’re still true to ourselves. We’re not trying to be that trendy, hot place that burns out in five years.

“We want to be the place that stays. Like the Bowl.”

Tough luck — face it, you’re trendy.

While Next Door attracts a mixed clientele, it certainly could be characterized as trendy. On a recent Tuesday night, when the Magic succeeded in taking a game from the Lakers in the NBA finals, the beautiful people were three deep at the 53-foot bar and filled all the tables of the back dining room.

Says regular Karl Ott, who has been coming to the Bowl for two decades and recently became a Next Door regular: “The concept works and really does complement the Bowl. Traditional food; a great, warm environment; and beer and wine.”

That’s been a drawback for some patrons of Ben’s Chili Bowl over the decades: no alcohol.

“We heard it over the years, ‘I wish I could have a beer with my chili dog,’ ” Mr. Ali says.

So, when the Ali brothers opened their own place, they made sure the libations would flow. More than three dozen wines are on the menu along with plenty of well-regarded beers. They even do wine tastings.

The food could be described as “high-quality comfort.”

The menu was developed by chef Rahman “Rock” Harper, known to many as a participant in “Hell’s Kitchen,” a reality show on Fox. (The brined fried chicken with mashed potatoes and braised kale is superb.) However, the chef, who had been in the kitchen since the restaurant opened in late December, left recently.

Nizam Ali says there are no hard feelings.

“It gives us an opportunity to add more things, like vegetarian items, to the menu,” he explains.

Vegetarian or not, the menu offers many reasonably priced items, such as the fried chicken at $17 and the half-pound Angus burger with hand-cut fries and slaw for $10.

So, as Next Door experiments with new menu items, wines and cocktails to find and establish its identity, the Bowl has been there, done that. Its menu has stayed virtually the same since the 1960s and is still good for a chili half-smoke (rumored to be entertainer Bill Cosby’s favorite).

Speaking of the 1960s, the Bowl stayed open during the devastating 1968 riots and the late-1980s construction of Metro’s Green Line, which, according to the Ben’s Chili Bowl Web site, turned U Street into a “60-foot hole.”

Mr. Ott, who frequented Ben’s during those Metro-construction days, remembers the only way to get there was through the alley.

“Ben’s really has been there through thick and thin,” says Sandy Bellamy, executive director of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

Now, as the corridor is booming with night life, it’s time for the next generation to make its mark - next door.

“U Street has always been a mecca for African-American intellectual, artistic and economic development,” Ms. Bellamy says. “Nizam and Kamal are an extension, a manifestation of that amazing culture.”

• Gabriella Boston can be reached at gboston@washingtontimes.com.

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