I gotta give props to my hometown hot dog haven, Ben’s Chili Bowl, on fifty years of business. On August 22, 1958, Trinidadian immigrant, Ben Ali launched his restaurant at 1213 U Street in northwest Washington, DC in a 1910 building that once housed the Minnehaha Theater. Playing local venues, musicians and comedians frequented the area, then known as “Black Broadway.” From Duke Ellington to Ella Fitzgerald, Dick Gregory to Bill Cosby (who remains a loyal, avid Ben’s customer) everyone who passed through the U Street corridor patronized Ben and Virginia Ali’s famous Chili and Half-Smokes.
The business has survived the tumult of history. Following the 1968 assassination of Rev. King, when much of the city was engulfed in angry, despairing, riotous flames, Ben’s bravely remained open and served as a meeting place for Stokely Carmichael and the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.) The heroin trade hit the area hard in the mid 1970’s and the late 1980’s expansion of the Washington-area subway system into the “Shaw” neighborhood, though ultimately good for city residents brought a five-year period of construction mayhem and a business nadir for Ben’s.
In the nineties when two (Nazim and Kamal) of the Ali’s three sons took over the reins, sales surged and the couple felt comfortable with retiring and leaving the family business their capable hands. They’ve published a book documenting the history of “The Bowl” and recently secured a deal to vend at the new stadium, Nationals Park, home to the Washington Nationals baseball franchise.
In honor of this milestone, Mr. Cosby presided over a 50th anniversary gala last night at the neighboring historic Lincoln Theatre with a special performance by Roberta Flack. Today brought a press conference with tributes from city officials, and words from Mr. and Mrs. Ali. And on Sunday, from 2pm to 10pm longtime DC music venue, the 9:30 Club will host a free concert featuring (among many others) go-go legends EU (Experience Unlimited) and Trouble Funk.
Photo: CoolTown Studios