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Ben Ali, 82; Chili Bowl diner was a Washington landmark

By Brett Zongker
Associated Press / October 9, 2009

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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.

Mr. Ali died of congestive heart failure Wednesday night at his home, his daughter-in-law Sonya Ali said yesterday.

Mr. 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 the Philadelphia Eagles.

Mr. Ali’s family posted a statement on the restaurant’s website 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.’’

Mr. Ali was an immigrant from Trinidad, earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska, and moved to Washington to study at Howard University’s medical and dental schools. He withdrew, though, after injuring his back in a fall.

The newlywed couple opened the restaurant on nearby 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 Mr. Ali to celebrate the diner’s 45th anniversary, as well as President 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.

The restaurant survived tumultuous times, including the 1968 race riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, when Ben’s remained open, serving both protesters and police. Following years saw urban blight and recent gentrification in the surrounding neighborhood.

District Council chairman Vincent Gray called the landmark a meeting place for the community and said Mr. Ali was an iconic figure in the city.

Virginia Ali, who oversaw the business with her sons Kamal and Nizam in recent years, said the business survived because of community support.

District Councilman Kwame Brown called Mr. Ali a civil rights pioneer and entrepreneur.

“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.’’

Mr. Ali and wife Virginia recently took a cruise to New England and Nova Scotia in September, said Sonya Ali, the wife of Ali’s son Kamal. They would have celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary on Saturday.

Ben Ali continued to visit the diner each month, she said, though he suffered some heart problems. The Chili Bowl, she said, will be open for many years to come.