Ben Ali, founder of DC's
Ben's Chili Bowl dies, 10/8/2009
WASHINGTON - Ben Ali, the founder of
Ben's Chili Bowl diner, a landmark in Washington's black business and
entertainment district and a frequent stop for politicians and
celebrities, has died. He was 82.
Ali died of natural causes Wednesday night at his home, restaurant
manager Maurice Harcum said Thursday. Ali was born in 1927 and opened
the restaurant with his wife, Virginia, in an old movie house in 1958,
when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and integrating public schools.
It became a longtime fixture in the black business community, serving up
bowls of chili and its trademark chili-covered half-smokes. The
smothered sausages became Washington's answer to the Philly Cheese Steak
when rivalries flared between the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia
Ali's family posted a statement on the restaurant's Web site thanking
people for an outpouring of support.
"Family, friends, and countless fans of Ben's will sorely miss the
energetic and unforgettable personality of Ben Ali," the family wrote.
"He was a true hero of the people and a great example of someone who
actually epitomized the American dream."
Ali was an immigrant from Trinidad who moved to Washington and studied
at Howard University.
The newlywed couple opened the restaurant on U Street, then known as
America's "Black Broadway" for its thriving black-owned shops and
theaters. Jazz greats Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole
performed along the strip and were known to visit Ben's.
More recently, Bill Cosby has been a favorite guest - joining Ali to
celebrate the diner's 45th anniversary - as well as President Barack
Obama in January. After the 2008 presidential election, the Ali family
put up a sign: "Who eats free at Ben's: -Bill Cosby -The Obama Family."
Before that, only Cosby ate for free.
D.C. Council chairman Vincent Gray called the landmark a meeting place
for the D.C. community and said Ali was an "iconic figure" in the city.
The restaurant has survived tumultuous times, including the 1968 race
riots, years of urban blight and recent gentrification in the
Virginia Ali, who oversaw the business with her sons Kamal and Nizam in
recent years, has said the family didn't want to move. She said the
business survived because of community support. Ben's celebrated its
50th anniversary in August 2008.
D.C. Councilman Kwame Brown called Ali a civil rights pioneer and
"Through the best times and the worst times in our city's history, Ben
was eternally optimistic," Brown said in a statement. "It was 51 years
ago, with the sale of Ben's first hot dog, that a place was created that
to this day transcends cultural, racial and political divides."
Associated Press/AP Online