Wednesday, February 13, 2008
In August 1958, Ben and Virginia Ali opened one of D.C.'s newest restaurants at 1213 U Street NW--Ben's Chili Bowl. For almost 50 years, Ben's has been an anchor on U Street in good times and bad. When they opened, the national business failure rate was nearly 56%. Ben's has been an icon through the good years when U Street was known as "Black Broadway" and artists like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole were playing clubs in the neighborhood and could be seen hanging at "The Bowl."
The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 brought riot and devastation to the neighborhood, but Ben's stayed open providing food and shelter to those who were trying to restore order to the neighborhood. Decline came to the area after the riots, but Ben's stayed open. In the 1970s and 80s, the U Street area was plagued by open-air heroin markets with dealers and junkies coming and going. Still, Ben's stayed open.
In the late 80s, when Metro put in a Green Line station across the street, most of the businesses closed during construction, but Ben's stayed open providing a place for workers to grab a bite. Now the U Street Corridor and the Shaw neighborhood are experiencing revitalization and gentrification and Ben's remains a constant presence on the street. Fancy restaurants open and close like political deals come and go in this city, but one locale remains stalwart and ever present: Ben's Chili Bowl.
If you're in the city, drop in. You never know who you might see when you do. Bill Cosby is a frequent diner when he's in town. And on a quiet day, you might be lucky enough to meet Ben's matriarch, Virginia. She's a lovely lady who bakes the cakes and always has a warm word for those who venture in for the best half smoke and chili cheese dog in the world!
Photo copyright: D.C. Confidential, 2/08