Bill Cosby has been visiting Ben’s Chili Bowl since 1958 and is perhaps its most famous patron, so when the restaurant decided to celebrate its 50th anniversary, Cosby found it fitting to hosted the festivities.
Before the legendary comedian takes the stage, though, local politicians step into the spotlight promising resolutions and issuing declarations and proclamations. A highlight was a letter read aloud from President and Mrs. Obama, who promise to return for a spicy meal soon.
However, before Ben’s Chili Bowl received the keys to the city, before the president took his first bite of a chili dog, and before Cosby put Ben and his family on the map, Ben’s Chili Bowl was a humble food joint founded by an immigrant from Trinidad and his young wife.
Ben Ali had moved to America for college and according to his wife, Virginia, had worked his way through school climbing the restaurant ladder — eventually trading mops for menus as he transitioned from cleaner to maitre d’.
After several years in the business, he decided to try his hand at owning a restaurant instead of just working in one. He and his wife settled on the U Street location, taking over an old pool hall and transforming it into what it is today — the landmark Chili Bowl.
“If you were going to open a restaurant in Washington and you were African American in those days, there was one place to really go, and that was this very vibrant community right here,” on U Street, says 79-year-old Virginia, sitting in the back room of the restaurant beneath a painting of her late husband.
In the late 50s and 60s, U Street was fondly known as “Black Broadway” due to the jazz clubs, theatres and African-American owned business found on the street.
MLK and Duke Ellington
According to the restaurant’s website, “it was not uncommon to see such luminaries as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory, [or] Martin Luther King Jr.” at the restaurant.
“We’ve always treated all people the same so it doesn’t matter if you are the president or MLK or if you are just the guy from the corner,” says Virginia.