Virginia Ali | Owner, Ben’s Chili Bowl
As Ben’s Chili Bowl celebrates 61 years as one of Washington’s most cherished landmarks, owner Virginia Ali reminisces about the golden era of the U Street corridor. When she first opened the restaurant with her late husband Ben in 1958 the African American neighborhood was called “Black Broadway” and was full of pride, she says. Through the area’s ups-and-downs, Ben’s remained a constant in the community, even staying open during the riots. If it’s any testament to the solid foundation Ali, now 85, helped build, her three sons all have a hand in operations and the staff calls her “Mom.” Look no further than the dozens of photos lining the walls to see the luminaries (George W. Bush, Barack Obama, et al.) who have saddled up to the counter for a famous chili dog. In June Ali received the Duke Ziebert Capital Achievement Award from the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington for her contributions to D.C.’s dining landscape. Now, when Ali walks through the doors of Ben’s she doesn’t make it but a few feet without being stopped by patrons and friends. Whether she admits it or not, Ben’s has come to represent something bigger—a gathering place that epitomizes community. >>
HOW DO YOU THINK BEN’S HAS BEEN ABLE TO MAINTAIN SUCH SUCCESS AFTER ALL THESE YEARS? Number one, the chili dogs and half smokes are delicious. Number two, we’ve tried to always provide an atmosphere of home and family. My greatest enjoyment is meeting people from all walks of life and I’ve done that. From presidents to bums and everything in between.
HOW DOES A BUSINESS LIKE BEN’S HAVE TO ADJUST TO CHANGING TIMES? Well, at my age you don’t adjust well. That’s where my children come in.
IS THERE STILL A SENSE OF COMMUNITY TO THIS DAY? We only have young, educated people moving in the neighborhood and I’m so
fascinated when I’m out here on a Friday or Saturday night after midnight. It’s like Broadway. It’s so wonderful to see. I’m going to be 86 in December and I hope I live long enough to see what these very bright, young people do with this.
WHAT IS YOUR GO-TO ORDER? I like the beef hot dog with mustard, onions and chili. I was eating one every day for I don’t know how many years. Sometimes I could barely wait until lunchtime, but that ended when I was about 65. I went for a checkup and they said “your cholesterol is too high you’re going to have a stroke.” I went home and decided to try it a new way. I began walking every day for 30 minutes. My cholesterol lowered without me having to take any medication. I grew up on a farm and my father would always say “treat the body right and the body takes care of itself.”
WASHINGTON AND THE U STREET CORRIDOR IN PARTICULAR HAVE BEEN THROUGH A LOT OF TURMOIL. HOW DID YOU SURVIVE THE RIOTS, THE CRACK EPIDEMIC, THE DISTRICT’S STINT AS THE “MURDER CAPITAL OF AMERICA” AND METRO BEING BUILT? We just did what we always do—–treat everybody with the same kind of friendly warmth and welcoming attitude. After they built the subway, there were only three businesses that survived. We had one employee. They dug up the whole street 65 feet down. I had the contractor put up metal signs saying “This way to Ben’s.” The squeaky wheel gets the oil.
MY TOP SPOTS
One reason I appreciate the African American History Museum is because people are learning more about the culture and learning more about what it’s like to be here and be a human.
Room & Board hosts a fundraiser for Ali’s close friend of the Thomas and Birdie C. Smith Foundation, which raises funds to help inner-city kids.
Lee’s Flower Shop on U Street NW is run by a fourth-generation family Ali knows well. It has withstood a gentrifying neighborhood alongside Ben’s.
Ali used to eat one of Ben’s famous chili dogs everyday.
Published in our September 2019 issue.