DC -- U Street -- Ben's Chili Bowl:
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- BENS_200417_20.JPG: African American Heritage Trail, Washington, DC
Ben's Chili Bowl / Minnehaha Theater
1213 U Street, NW
Ben's Chili Bowl, founded in 1958 by Ben and Virginia Ali, is one of the oldest continuous businesses on U Street. It is also one of the few to survive both the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and the years of the disruptive Metro construction in the late 1980s. Thanks in part to the patronage of entertainer Bill Cosby, Ben's has become a national landmark. The restaurant occupies the former Minnehaha Theater, a 1910 movie house owned and operated from 1913 to 1920 by Sherman H. Dudley, once a leading vaudeville performer and entrepreneur.
- BENS_200417_34.JPG: Dear Family,
Due to the impact of COVID-19,
We are now open 11:00am - 7:00pm daily.
Order your Ben's takeout with curbside pickup!
For your convenience, delivery orders may be placed through GrubHub, Uber Eats, and Caviar,
Please wear Face Masks and practice Social Distancing
Let's stay safe together... we appreciate you!
- Wikipedia Description: Ben's Chili Bowl
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Ben's Chili Bowl is a landmark restaurant in Washington, D.C., located at 1213 U Street, next to Lincoln Theatre, in the Shaw neighborhood of northwest D.C. It is known locally for its chili dogs, half-smokes, and milkshakes, and has been an integral part of the neighborhood's history since its founding in 1958. It was frequented by both police and protesters during the 1968 Washington, D.C. riots, and is regularly visited by celebrities such as Bill Cosby and Chris Tucker. The restaurant's founders have been inducted into the D.C. Hall of Fame.
Ben's Chili Bowl was founded in 1958 by husband and wife team Ben and Virginia Ali. The building they chose was that of Washington's first silent movie house, the Minnehaha, which was established in 1911. Most of the furniture in the restaurant is original to the 1950s. At the time, Washington was officially segregated, and U Street was known as "Black Broadway." Many jazz greats of the day, such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Nat King Cole, would stop by the restaurant when they performed at U Street clubs.
The U Street corridor was devastated by the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. During the riots black activist Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, asked Ben to keep his restaurant open and the Alis obtained permission to stay open past curfew. The restaurant fed both the police officers and firemen working to impose order on the neighborhood, as well as the black activists. The violence and arson reached such an extent that Ben wrote "Soul Brother" in soap on the front window in the hopes that it would stop the angry mobs. The destruction of so many businesses led to the flight of residents towards the suburbs and the economic decline of the neighborhood through the mid-1970s to mid-1980s. As the area became known for its drug addicts, Ben's Chili Bowl reduced its staff to one employee. Ben and Virginia's son Kamal recalled, "We stayed and had a following, because the Chili Bowl was like the neighborhood barbershop. People would sit here and chat. There was always a family presence and the locals protected us."
The vast construction of the U Street/Cardozo Metro Station across the street from the restaurant, completed in 1991, forced still more U Street businesses to close, but Ben's Chili Bowl stayed open to feed the construction workers. The Washington Post commented that Ben's Chili Bowl is "probably the only business on this strip that survived both the 1968 riots and the construction phase of the Metro Green Line." The Metro and lower crime rates helped the gradual revitalization and gentrification of the neighborhood. From the early 1990s, business revenues grew by 10% annually, to $1.5 million in 2005, and the number of employees at the restaurant grew as well, to a staff of 20. In 2001, Ben and Virginia's son commented on the changes: "You hear comments. Even the white customers. They want to think they're the only whites who'd been hip enough to go to the Chili Bowl. Now they look around and there are a lot of other whites and they are not so happy about it." In 2007, the Chili Bowl joined with nine other local businesses to buy Renewable Energy Certificates as part of a renewable energy initiative. As of 2007, Ben and Virginia have retired from the restaurant business and have passed daily operations of Ben's Chili Bowl to their sons, Kamal and Nizam.
In 2008, Ben's Chili Bowl opened a second location in the newly built Nationals Park.
Customers and recognition:
The Boston Globe described Ben's diverse customers as "punk-looking kids and fashionable business people and everyone in between". The most famous regular customer is comedian Bill Cosby, who took his future wife to Ben's on dates in the early 1960s. Cosby returned in 1985 to hold a press conference in the restaurant to celebrate the success of his television series, The Cosby Show. He continues to stop by Ben's while in town for servings of half-smokes. A sign posted in the restaurant proclaims that Bill Cosby is the only person who eats for free at Ben's Chili Bowl. Other celebrities, including Chris Tucker and Bono, have visited over the years. A scene from the film The Pelican Brief was filmed in the restaurant. Anthony A. Williams made a point of appearing at Ben's immediately after his successful mayoral election.
Ben and Virginia Ali have been honored by the city for their dedication. They both have been inducted into the D.C. Hall of Fame and the alley adjacent to the restaurant was named "Ben Ali Way". In 2004, the James Beard Foundation named it one of "four locally owned and operated regional restaurants that have withstood the test of time and are beloved in their communities."
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