Friday, October 9, 2009

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.

Bill Cosby recalls Ben’s Chili Bowl

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.”

She said he died about 9 p.m. Wednesday.

News of Mr. Ali’s passing was reported on CNN — a far cry from his restaurant’s humble beginnings in a segregated D.C. neighborhood.

Before becoming Mr. Ali’s restaurant, Ben’s was a silent movie theater, the Minnie-Hah-Hah, and then operated as a pool hall before Mr. Ali opened up for business after a $5,000 renovation.

Before the 1968 race riots, U Street was known as Washington’s “Black Broadway.” Miles Davis and Duke Ellington played there, along with such legendary entertainers as Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx and Dick Gregory. Almost from the day the riots ended, Washingtonians talked about a “new” U Street that would recapture the past glories of the neighborhood.

Located at 1213 U St. in Northwest Washington, in the heart of the U Street corridor, Ben’s Chili Bowl stood out among shuttered brick buildings and storefronts from the riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination until the mid-1990s. But the U Street corridor experienced a rebirth in the 1990s, with gentrification, a revitalized night life and younger crowds returning to the area.

But commercial redevelopment was slow to come. The corridor remained blighted for decades, and construction of a stop along Metro’s Green Line drove out many of the businesses that survived the riots — during which Mr. Ali fed protesters and authorities alike.

Mr. Ali was known to tell customers the Chili Bowl opened in 1958, survived the riots of 1968, the drug wars of 1978, the Metro construction of 1988 and the new housing construction of 1998.

“I have resisted changing anything,” Mr. Ali told The Washington Times in a 2003 interview. “We have come through a lot over 45 years. We stayed open through the 1968 riots. We made it through the Metro construction. Here we are.”

The following year, the D.C. Council changed the name of the alley next to the restaurant and the Lincoln Theatre to “Ben Ali Way.”

Mr. Fenty on Thursday expressed sadness about what he called one of “the greatest treasures in the District of Columbia.”

“Ben Ali was a man who invested his life in a small business that weathered many storms and became the soul of a neighborhood and the pride of our city,” Mr. Fenty said. “Though we mourn the loss of Mr. Ali, we are grateful that his legacy will live on in our hearts.”

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, who is a “regular patron,” said Thursday that the community “has lost a well-respected and iconic figure in the shaping of the historic U Street corridor.”

Though the font on the sign has grown bigger, not much has aesthetically changed about the bright-red eatery with the throwback decor.

Despite Mr. Ali’s passing Wednesday evening, the restaurant opened Thursday just as it did every day for the past five decades.

“The reason we are working today is because that is the way he would have wanted it,” Mrs. Ali said. “He was a businessman to the very end. He is the reason we’re here 51 years later. We want to continue his legacy.”

Joseph Weber, Jordan Buie and Seth Woods contributed to this report.

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