The Soul of Ben’s Chili Bowl

Thankfully, many are aware that on Wednesday night, the founder and owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl (BCB) – a Washington DC icon, Ben Ali died of congestive heart failure. Ali will be missed by many, not only his family and friends in the Capitol City, but his extended family across the globe, who has patronized the one-of-a-kind establishment during its reign.

As a native Washingtonian (yes, I said native), I grew up knowing Ben’s; it was a fixture for some civil rights milestones. As I got older, I can remember making late-night-after-the-club stops to Ben’s for good eats. Until about seven years ago beyond the African-American community, Ben’s was little known but cherished within DC. I am hopeful that post-mortem, many will come to learn and appreciate the historical significance of BCB. Ben’s has survived some bleak times.

Established in 1958, it was the heart of a renaissance of sorts in an area that was dubbed Black Broadway. The 1968 riots that destroyed the now-thriving U Street corridor and beyond after Dr. King’s murder, did not claim Ben’s. The chokehold that crack cocaine had on this city (and that particular neighborhood) in the late 80s – mid 90s, did not. Instead, the restaurant became a symbol of what was good and true in the city and should be preserved.

Ben’s Chili Bowl has catered to all sorts, from all walks of life. It was and always will be vibrant with life, the site of lively conversation and debate as well as activism, long before urban renewal and Hollywood sexy came calling.

To the Ali family, a job well-done. And don’t miss, the next generation of Ben’s, Next Door.

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