Walk into Ben’s Chili Bowl on a typical weekend and you may feel like you’ve stumbled upon a neighborhood block party.
Just after 3 p.m. on a chilly Saturday afternoon – a time when most restaurants are caught in a between-meal lull – the old-school diner in Northwest Washington is filled with customers from front to back scarfing down plastic red baskets of hot dogs and chili cheese fries.
At the lunch counter, charmed out-of-town tourists rub elbows with D.C. locals. Boisterous chatter fills the corridor – everything from business deals to talk of the Redskins’ playoff chances – while a rambling homeless man with a scruffy overcoat and a medical bracelet roams the vicinity, sipping a complimentary cup of apple juice.
Behind the counter, the atmosphere is at least as jovial. A staff of 10 effortlessly throws together burgers and tuna melts in a comfortably messy kitchen while crooning along to the Motown tunes piping out of the jukebox. There are no standardized uniforms or McDonald’s-like assembly lines, and regulars are greeted by name as they walk through the door.
“It’s like a big extension of our home almost,” said Nizam Ali, son of the restaurant’s founder Ben Ali. Nizam runs the store with his brother, Kamal. “It’s comfortable here. We try and make it like our home, where these are people we’re inviting in, and we’ll sit down and eat with you and we want you to have a good time. Everyone sits together on that long counter, and you get great discussions.”
It’s a place that embodies what the U Street area used to be and what it has become. Housed in an old silent movie theater, Ben’s Chili Bowl is a throwback in an area that has seen marked modernization over the past 15 years. While other locally owned businesses nearby have given way to national chains, the nearly 50-year-old diner has stayed a step ahead of the newcomers, becoming one of the city’s most notable attractions.
Since serving its first chili dog in 1958, Ben’s has seen the area go from chic to seedy and back again, managing to adapt while keeping its homey ambiance. The bright vintage sign that greets customers walking in has gone untouched since the restaurant opened its doors, as have the stools and booths. The owners plan to keep it that way.
What have changed are the customers. While Ben’s once served a mostly working class and primarily black clientele, the diner has recently become a symbol of the new integrated nature of the Shaw neighborhood. On a given day the dining room hosts everyone from policy wonks in suits to club-goers to vagrants – all munching on the same burgers and hot dogs that have been on the menu for decades.
“One of the things we’ve kind of prided ourselves on is that it’s always been a place where you could have a judge next to a junkie next to a sanitation worker next to a Ph.D, and they’ll be having conversations,” Ali said. “It could be a white person or a black person or a rich person or a poor person – it doesn’t matter. It’s always been that kind of place where everyone can just come together and eat.”
In a city where landmarks are like bus stops, Ben’s has more than earned its label as a Washington institution. It’s said to be the birthplace of the chili half-smoke, recently named D.C.’s signature food in a Washington Post survey. The diner was one of four restaurants in the country named by the James Beard Foundation as American classics, and was even given its own panda statue as part of the District’s PandaMania campaign that placed large panda statues all over the city.
Just as it’s been for decades, the main attraction is Ben Ali’s secret chili recipe (don’t even try), smothered over sandwiches or served straight up in a bowl. While the menu has expanded over the years to include things like turkey burgers and veggie chili, you’ll find nothing that could be called health food, and everything comes with its fair share of grease.
Yet as successful as Ben’s has become, the road has been bumpy. Located in what has until recently been one of D.C.’s roughest neighborhoods, the diner has seen the best and worst of what Washington has to offer, battling excessive street violence, drug trafficking and large-scale construction projects on its way to national distinction.
When Ben’s first opened its doors, Washington was segregated and U St. was known as “Black Broadway.” The strip was nationally recognized as a hub of black culture, lined with lively theaters and jazz clubs that attracted some of the country’s most prominent black celebrities. Ben’s was in the heart of the action, and business was solid.
However, as racial tensions in the country boiled during the Civil Rights era, events would take their toll on the neighborhood. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Shaw has hit with an intense wave of riots that caused many stores to permanently board their windows. Ben’s, however, remained open, actually serving as a meeting place for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
While “the Bowl” weathered the storm, the neighborhood after the riots hit rock bottom. Through the 1970s and 1980s, U Street became one of the most notorious drug trafficking spots in the United States. Ali recalls his mother telling stories of letting police officers use the Bowl’s upstairs office as lookout spot in order to save the diner from being swallowed by the drug culture.
Perhaps the most trying time, though, were the years between 1987 and 1991, when U Street was literally torn apart to build the Cardozo Metro station. Activity in the area came to a halt, and revenue could barely keep the mustard bottles full, let alone turn a profit.
“We would literally be making $50 to $100 a day for five years,” Ali said. “There was a narrow walkway two blocks this way or two blocks that way just to get out. You’d have to park 2 blocks away and walk just to get in. There were a lot of our regular customers that we didn’t see for that whole period.”
After the orange cones had cleared, the opening of the Metro station helped breathe new life into the area, with the diner emerging at the head of pack. Ben’s has become a hotspot for twenty-somethings spilling out of nearby clubs, and the old regulars continue to take their place at the counter.
The biggest threat now is the neighborhood’s rising property values. The Bowl’s assessed value increased roughly $1 million just last year, amounting to $20,000 more in owed taxes. It’s the kind financial burden that could make keeping a family-owned business in the area unmanageable.
Yet if there’s a day when Ben’s Chili Bowl might become unprofitable, Ali isn’t losing any sleep over it. With the diner in its 48th year, it’s hard to imagine U Street without it.
“When there’s something that’s been there so long and you kind of lose it to development or just to the way the country’s changing, it brings you down,” Ali said. “The legacy I want to leave is that I want people to always be able to say, ‘hey, no matter what we’ve lost in this country or this neighborhood, we’ve still got Ben’s.'”
This article appeared in the January 17, 2006 issue of the Hatchet.