Ben Ali, co-founder and namesake of Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C., died Wednesday night at the age 82. Thursday morning, his joint -- the one that he has run for 51 years with his wife, Virginia, and their extended family, the one that has fed everyone from politicians, actors and rock stars to all the regulars it has collected over the years -- opened as normal, serving half-smokes, chili dogs and coleslaw to the crowds that came to pay their respects, to remember Ali or just to have lunch.
Ben's opened in 1958 on U Street in D.C., then known as the "Black Broadway," and was a hangout for the likes of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway. It survived the D.C. riots in 1968, then went on to survive everything from the 1970s and endless U Street construction to Marion Barry and a sudden rise to fame thanks to folks like Bill Cosby, Anthony Bourdain and Oprah, who kept getting the place in the news. A few months back, President Barack Obama did the same thing when he stopped in for a quick lunch on his very first weekend as a D.C. resident. Ben's even won a James Beard Award -- the America's Classics Restaurant Award, no small potatoes.
Through it all, nothing about the place ever changed. Same recipes, same faces behind the same counter. The place is a venerable landmark in a city full of them, an American original held over from the days when two chili dogs and a pile of fries was still considered a nice night out.
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Check out the article in today's Washington Times for the full story and a brief history of Ben's. Or, for a somewhat more extensive history of Ben's and the entire U Street neighborhood, check out the Ben's Chili Bowl website.