Virginia Ali and her husband Ben opened Ben’s Chili Bowl on August 22, 1958, and the restaurant has been fully family owned and operated since. Ben, a Trinidadian immigrant, had worked his way through college by working in restaurants, so when he and his wife Virginia settled in the U Street area of Washington D.C., they opened the Chili Bowl as a way to become self-employed and serve their community. “Washington, of course in those days, was still a segregated city,” [Virginia] Ali remarked. “So when we met and wanted to get married and open a little restaurant, we thought the best place to open one would be on Black Broadway, if we could find such a location.” They ended up leasing an old, silent movie theatre and turned to neighborhood contractors, plumbers and electricians to turn it into a vibrant and modern restaurant. Ali continued, “We knew we wanted to have a community-based place that treated people like family. And we were able to get that going. And now we’ve been there 61-and-a-half years. We’ve had some challenges, some very interesting challenges, but nothing like today.”
The restaurant, a now-iconic DC attraction, has received acclaim for its food but also for its history as a gathering place during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and beyond. The Bowl served protesters who came to the area for the 1963 March on Washington, and was the only business on the block to remain open during the riots of 1968. Ali credits the restaurant’s success throughout the years with their friendly and comforting atmosphere: “We like to make people feel happy and at home when they come to Ben’s. And it’s always been a meeting place where people gathered. I remember during the civil rights movement of the ‘60s when Dr. King was in town and he’d come into the Chili Bowl. I had an opportunity to sit with him for a moment or two on occasion. And it was that kind of meeting place. It was a place where you stopped and you knew there was a place of comfort and a place of bumping into friends.”
While Ben’s has grown to become a staple of the community, the heart of the restaurant — and the food — have not changed. The restaurant has added a few vegetarian items, but the #1 seller remains the Washington-signature half-smoke. “It’s basically a breakfast sausage that we put into a nice steamy, hot dog bun and dress up with mustard, onions and our very famous and spicy homemade chili sauce. So that has lasted 61 and a half years,” shared Ali.
Today, Ben’s is facing unprecedented challenges with the onset of COVID-19. Vida Ali, Ben and Virginia’s daughter, shared that while they are unable to interact with customers in the same way, working with partners like Grubhub, who are an extension of their team, help them continue to spread their message of acceptance — and their chili dogs. “When the pandemic hit, we naturally said, ‘Okay, well, if you can’t come to us, we’ll come to you,’” she shared. “We already had the platform, we already had the infrastructure, we already had menus built and so forth. So it was very easy. We just had to promote it.”
In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, recent months have brought increased attention to inequality and police brutality directed at Black Americans. Similar to the ‘60s, protesters have taken to the streets to speak out about injustice but have also taken to their wallets to support Black-owned businesses. “I think the attention to the Black-owned businesses have been great because [by] just bringing awareness to it, we have had more support,” shared [Vida] Ali. “We’re very, very thankful for those who are asking to buy Black or, or support Black businesses.” She added, “One of the things I would like to say is I remember listening to mom do an interview. And when she spoke of the days of when Dr. King used to come by the Chili Bowl, and she would sit and they would talk about his dream. That was in the late fifties early sixties. Now that has become history when it was like a normal day for them. Fifty, 60 years from now, everything that’s happening today will be history. And I only pray that we have done what mom did in the ‘60s to show the support and to be proud, too. So that history will show that what Ben’s represented in 2020, it was the same or close to what Ben’s represented in the ‘60s.”
No matter who walks through the door, be it a politician, athlete or neighbor down the street, everyone who encounters Ben’s Chili Bowl is treated the same. Added Ali, “I think our philosophy of treating everyone the same is what made us survive 61 years.”