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Ben Ali of Ben's Chili Bowl Dies

Ben Ali, the founder of Ben's Chili Bowl, a landmark D.C. eatery that has fed presidents, celebrities and the common folks of the city, died last night of congestive heart failure at his home in Washington. He was 82. (Our full obituary is here; be sure to read it all the way to the end because you'll be amazed.)


A fixture of U Street since 1958, the cramped restaurant has outlasted the changing fortunes of its neighborhood and supplied hungry Washingtonians with heaping bowls of chili, hot dogs and its trademark chili-topped half-smokes. Photos of visiting celebrities -- including Denzel Washington, Danny Glover and Bill Cosby -- lined the walls, and in January the restaurant received its best publicity boost ever when president-elect Obama dropped by for a half-smoke (a smoked sausage).

Near a sign that warned, "Who eats free at Ben's: Bill Cosby. No one else," Obama paid for his $12 tab with a $20 bill, leaving the change as a tip.


Mr. Ali, a Trinidadian immigrant who had studied at Howard University, opened the eatery with his wife, Virginia, and ran the popular but eccentric carryout restaurant with two of his three sons. The place was known as a gathering spot for Washingtonians of all classes and races, who were united by their love of chili and the restaurant's excellent jukebox and quirky customs. It was open as long as 22 hours a day and survived several urban renewal efforts on a street once known as Washington's "Black Broadway" but later hit by severe blight before a recent renaissance.

Through the decades, the sights, sounds and smells of Ben's Chili Bowl endured as a place of comfort and warmth amid a world of change. It was featured in documentaries and in the 2008 Russell Crowe political thriller, "State of Play."

Please share your memories of the man, not just the restaurant, in our comments section below or in our discussion area. We also have a huge photo gallery online of Mr. Ali and his restaurant.

Here's a piece that we ran on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the restaurant and the 45th anniversary. It was one of the few businesses to remain open on U Street during the 1968 riots.


Ben Ali, left, poses with big Chili Bowl fan, Joe Johnson of D.C. Ben holds his wedding photo featuring he and wife Virginia from 1958, the same year that Ben's Chili Bowl opened on U St. (photo by Michael Williamson, Washington Post).

Here's Bill Cosby in 2003 with Virginia and Ben Ali at the restaurant's 45th anniversary party (AP photo).


By Patricia Sullivan |  October 8, 2009; 11:41 AM ET
Previous: The Daily Goodbye | Next: The Daily Goodbye


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Thanks Ben.

Posted by: christopher_a_metzler | October 8, 2009 12:18 PM

Obama paid for his meal.

Posted by: corones | October 8, 2009 12:22 PM

We all owe a debt of thanks to Ben Ali not only for the fun and great food at Ben's Chili Bowl, but for sticking with DC during all the good and bad times. He is an icon in our City and he will be missed. My thoughts are with the Ali familty at this difficult time.

Posted by: peterdc | October 8, 2009 12:23 PM

Thank you Ben. Job well done. Rest in peace.

Posted by: mstov | October 8, 2009 12:35 PM

I visited Ben's Chili Bowl just last week with a group of journalism students from D.C.'s Roosevelt Senior High School. We all got a lesson in the history of this remarkable eatery and devoured some great chili dogs.

May Ben Ali's legacy continue.

Posted by: YSLamb | October 8, 2009 12:50 PM

Thank you Mr. Ali for you and your family's service to the community. To Mrs. Virginia and Haidar, Kamal and Nizam, my deepest condolences.

Posted by: digital_fightnews1 | October 8, 2009 12:52 PM

I have never had the pleasure of eating at Ben's Chili Bowl but hope to one day when I am in DC. Sad to see him pass. Hope his family keeps the tradition going.

Posted by: Pilot1 | October 8, 2009 12:54 PM

Thank you Mr. Ali. Even in passing, you will remain a true icon to the city of DC. Unfortunately, the District has lost one of its true patriarchs today. My prayers go out to you and your family.

Posted by: othello02 | October 8, 2009 12:57 PM

Thankyou Ben, for EVERYTHING you did, to make DC a community. You will be missed by many.

Posted by: Robbnitafl | October 8, 2009 12:58 PM

I was very young and my dad's medical office was at 12th and W across from the Children's Hospital annex. I would gather my little change and head on over to U street to get a half smoke with mustard, relish and onions.
Thanks Ben. Hot dogs and half smokes can only be good for you and you proved the point.
Rest well; you done good!

Posted by: photolewie | October 8, 2009 1:01 PM

I just ate at Ben's last week and thought what a great DC Institution it is. Ben's restaurant has always been so warm and welcoming to me and others from the Natonal Hot Dog and Sausage Council. He will be sorely missed.

Janet Riley, President, National Hot Dog and Sausage Counci

Posted by: mdpostreader | October 8, 2009 1:19 PM

I'ved lived in DC for thirty-nine years and as a young girl Ben's Chili Bowlwas the place to go let at night. Now, middle-age I frequent Ben's as well as Next Door. The news struck me hard since I knwo the family and have friends who work there. I can't imagine what this day is like in a place always full of fun and laughter.

Mr. Ali will remain an icon on the U Street corridor for years to ocme. My heart goes out to his family and staff of both establishments and I send heart-felt condolences.


Posted by: freenan1 | October 8, 2009 1:19 PM

Rest In Peace, what an ICON. It must feel great to know that you started an ICON, and more importantly you raised your family in such a way that they are continuing the tradition. Your family is a testiment, that your day's on this earth were more than the Chili Bowl....

Posted by: highlife | October 8, 2009 1:22 PM

Obama for his $12 tab with a $20 bill, leaving the change as a tip.

What kind of sentence is this?

There's no editor's checking anymore?

Posted by: citigreg | October 8, 2009 1:22 PM

I grew up in DC. I remember going to Bens Chili Bowl with my father on many occasions as a kid. The Ali Family are really good people. My Condolences to the family. Rest in Peace Ben.

Posted by: ladyc1 | October 8, 2009 1:23 PM

One of the best posters in Metro buses advocating for DC Statehood was Ben's. Thank you to Ben.

Condolences to his family: here was a fine man who lived out his values in a way that made a difference to a whole city.

Barb Irwin
Washington DC

Posted by: irwinbp | October 8, 2009 1:31 PM

I also grew up in DC and remember being afraid they wouldn't make it through the rough transition when the METRO construction destroyed U street and made it impossible to do business on U Street. They supported the civil rights leaders with food and a place to feel welcome and safe and they perservered through the drug and prostitution takeover of U street. Now the family is rightly reaping the benefits of the U street renaissance. All testament to Mr. Ali's vision and loyalty to D.C. and his customers. Rest in Peace Mr. Ali, and peace to the family.

Posted by: DCcomm | October 8, 2009 1:35 PM

Thank you sir. You helped to make D.C. a better place! Requiescat in pace.

Posted by: whirlwind81 | October 8, 2009 1:38 PM

I remember one of my dates taking me to Ben's after a movie in the late 70's. He warned me of the hot chili. Oh, I could do HOT. Well lets just say I couldn't ask for WATER fast enough.

Posted by: Turtle1234 | October 8, 2009 1:43 PM

A moment of silence for Ben Ali.

Thanks Ben, and all of your family, for, so far, 51 years of great food (it really is good), great fun, great spirit, and great contributions to Washington, D.C., the community, the region, the restaurant scene, and life in general.

Ben Ali will be missed, but he'll never be forgotten.

In the next few days, everyone should go on down to Ben's Chili Bowl and eat a meal there in honor of Ben Ali!

Bon appetit!

Posted by: thefrontpage1 | October 8, 2009 1:47 PM

Obama for his $12 tab with a $20 bill, leaving the change as a tip.

What kind of sentence is this?

There's no editor's checking anymore?

Posted by: citigreg | October 8, 2009 1:22 PM

Hey citigreg,

Your grammer isn't any better!!

Rest in peace Ben. You will be missed!

Posted by: chirty | October 8, 2009 1:49 PM

I was just @ Ben's Next Door last night. I had no idea that Mr. Ali had died until I read the paper this afternoon. He was without a doubt a Washington visionary and Ben's Chili Bowl is a Washington institution that I hope lives on FOREVER!!!
My sincere condolences to the Ali Family, your husband/father has left a great legacy that we hope continues for another 50 plus years.

Posted by: gbethc | October 8, 2009 1:50 PM

Cheers to Ben and his Chili Bowl..

Posted by: jdowdell_balti | October 8, 2009 1:53 PM

Thank you Ben. Do rest in peace.

Posted by: thornwalker1 | October 8, 2009 2:01 PM

I'm pouring out a half smoke all the way for Ben right now.... RIP

Posted by: BenzoTim | October 8, 2009 2:04 PM

I thought the sign inside Ben's said that "only Bill Cosby (& the Obamas) eat for free" . . .

Maybe the change was made after the president's visit.

Either way, RIP. The food isn't great, but for the price, it is good value; and his restaurant is an undeniable fixture in the city -- everyone who spends anytime here learns about Bens.

The "glory wall" in particular is Smithsonian worthy -- it's a real document of the times.

Posted by: JPRS | October 8, 2009 2:14 PM

Thank you for great food and many years of service to DC.

Posted by: eabgarnet | October 8, 2009 2:17 PM

"There's no editor's checking anymore?" It appears as though the WaPo editors aren't the only ones not editing their work.

R.I.P. Ben.

Posted by: mintchocolatechip | October 8, 2009 2:19 PM

Your presence will be missed. Thank you for what you did for my city.

Posted by: patrickneil | October 8, 2009 2:21 PM

We went to Ben's Chili bowl for the first time, the same day Obama came in with Fenty.

My wife is in the photo in the green sweater.
It was a truly amazing day and a great place to eat some good food.

We are sad for the Ali family. What a fixture. Our prayers go out to them.

Posted by: dwicker1957 | October 8, 2009 2:22 PM

I remember eating at Ben's Chili Bowl when I attended Howard University. It was on my list of places to get the best and tastiest lunch.Condolences to the family of Mr. Ali, keep the tradition alive.

Posted by: b_pinkett | October 8, 2009 2:27 PM

If you have never ate at Ben's Chili Bowl, then you have never been to DC.

I'm sure Mr. Ali is already serving his famous chili dogs in heaven....

R.I.P. Mr. Ben Ali

Posted by: ENJOYA | October 8, 2009 2:49 PM

A sad day. In the mid and late 90s, I used to gig somewhat regularly on U Street, which was just getting ready to begin its revival then. I've only been in Ben's between 1-4AM, not really a good way to assure a night's sleep, but this greasy dive was/is an institution. Musicians and nighthawks know what I mean.

Posted by: AlanLewine | October 8, 2009 2:57 PM


Thank you so much for being around long enough for me to try your famous chili dogs for the first time a few years back--after moving to the DC area from NJ.

Ironically, I had another one of your chili dogs at the last Nats game this year--When I found that there was a franchise at the stadium, I didn't hesitate in getting one. I hope your restaurants continue to run for future generations to enjoy. Thanks again and R.I.P.

Posted by: writer_33 | October 8, 2009 3:10 PM

Mr. Ali’s dining facility is a Washington, dc landmark, and in some corners of the city a monument and testimony to the everyday Washingtonian.

Specifically the symbolic and strident African American middle class neighborhood that surrounded Howard University and the many working class African-American neighborhoods and residents who patronized the chili bowl for decades.

It must be said that it wasn’t until the economic transition of the nineties that the chili bowl finally gained its notoriety and well deserved recognition.

My respect and condolences to family and friends.

Posted by: ChickGlass7 | October 8, 2009 3:13 PM

This place is important to DC because in a city that's still largely segregated, it's one of the few places where people of every sort go and mingle. We are losing places like this everyday to fast food, rising rents and changing tastes but as Ben's popularity today still shows, it's as important to the city as it has ever been. Long live Ben's!

Posted by: hobomike | October 8, 2009 3:14 PM

Thanks for sticking it through with us Ben. The neighborhood would not have blamed you if you left but because you stayed you really encouraged us all. Also, thank you for letting me slide that day when I came up short on the change.

Posted by: uniqui01 | October 8, 2009 3:18 PM

Rest well, you will be missed.
May Ben's Chili Bowl live on in tribute.

Posted by: commboss | October 8, 2009 3:21 PM

Ben's was always very special to me becaus not just as a native Washingtonian, but also because one of his sons was a couple of years ahead of me in high school. Needless to say, it was a special place for all of us, regardless of which year you were.

I can't wait until my twin sons are old enough for their first trip to Ben's.

To the entire Ali family, my thoughts and prayers are with you,

Nick Jacobs

Posted by: njacobs | October 8, 2009 3:22 PM

Ben, you will be missed! Thanks for you and your wife's vision and perseverance through the tough times. Your iconic symbolism will remain a permanent fixture of DC History. RIP

Posted by: SuhaZM | October 8, 2009 3:35 PM

Rest In Peace Ben Ali. You were truly an entrepreneurial pioneer! The vision, drive, and perseverance that it took to establish and operate "The Bowl"(or "Ben's) for all those years is nothing short of astonishing. Being a resident and native of NWDC, I recall going to Ben's back in the early '70s after the all night horror movie-thons at the Republic theater on U St. with my older brothers. I experienced the goodness of the chili half smoke for the first time while Ben and his staff were hard at work making history. Thank you Ben Ali.

Posted by: middletonje | October 8, 2009 3:47 PM

citigreg "wrote":

"Obama for his $12 tab with a $20
bill, leaving the change as a tip.

"What kind of sentence is this?

"There's no editor's checking

Oh, citigreg, you are so unintentionally funny. Thank you.

Posted by: oxhead1 | October 8, 2009 3:49 PM

Since high school I have frequented the famous Ben's Chili Bowl. It is still one of my favorite spots. My grandmother used to love the chili hot dogs there. I pray that God will comfort the family. Thanks for the memories.

Posted by: Prosper2 | October 8, 2009 3:59 PM

As a native Washingtonian born in 1955, I remember my first visit as a child to Ben's Chili Bowl. I enjoyed my visits and I enjoyed their chili dogs.

My sincere condolences to the Ali family.

Posted by: Ward4DC | October 8, 2009 4:02 PM

Hey citigreg,

Your grammer isn't any better!!

Posted by: chirty | October 8, 2009 1:49 PM

Grammar Police needs to spellcheck.

RIP, Ben.

Posted by: mra5a | October 8, 2009 4:11 PM

"Rest in peace Ben", you definitely will always be remembered for among other things, the your outstanding contribution to the community!

Posted by: rayven-t | October 8, 2009 4:15 PM

I am a 59 year old black female, a Washingtonian and have eaten at Ben's more times than I can remember. My prayers go out to Ben's family that they stay strong for each other. May Ben forever rest in peace.

citigreg: The point of the sentence about Obama and his $12 tab was: If Obama can pay for his food plus leave a tip then why can't Cosby pay for his food, why does he get to eat free?

Posted by: onterioe919 | October 8, 2009 4:31 PM

My sister came to visit me from Nebraska and it was necessity that we get a chili half-smoke from Ben's. That was two weekends ago. I love that place and am thankful that Mr. Ben Ali and his family persevered through the many changes on U St. Sad to see him go but glad to celebrate his legacy.

Posted by: JEpting | October 8, 2009 4:32 PM

I am deeply sadden to hear the lost of such a pioneer Mr. Ali, whom I have never met but always respected his vision and success of seeing the restaurant threw thick and thin. I always believe getting started in the restaurant business can be a very difficult challenge yet the business has out lasted many doubters.

May God bless you,

Paul Cole

Posted by: pcole1363 | October 8, 2009 4:38 PM

Ben's is a place I love, and a place where I love to take out of town visitors and family to get a taste of Washington, and a taste of what the world should be. It's a place where all are welcome, all are equal, and all have dignity.

Posted by: observer9 | October 8, 2009 4:38 PM

This news simply breaks your heart. Let's us bow our heads to a great American who has brought us so much joy over the years with his wonderful half-smokes.

RIP Ben. Thanks for all the good times.

Posted by: cbjornson | October 8, 2009 4:57 PM

Used to go to Ben's Chili Bowl when I lived in DC. Saddened to hear about the passing of Mr. Ali. His family are in my prayers.

Posted by: wsealsjr | October 8, 2009 4:58 PM

First and foremost, my condolences to the family. The longevity and status is a great testimony to an amazing man and family.

I try to always take clients who are moving here from out of town to Ben's to experience a true DC experience.

And to the negative people on this blog, if you can't say anything nice..don't say anything at all. An apology would be well done.

Posted by: edenellis | October 8, 2009 5:00 PM

Folks, in keeping with our rules about comments, I've removed a statement from one person that was potentially slanderous, and a response that was obscene. Criticism is allowable in these forums, just keep it reasonable.

Also, thanks for the comments about missing words in the post, which I've corrected throughout the day. I was clearly working too fast this morning and didn't adequately edit the work. A full obit of Mr. Ali's life will be posted this evening, and will appear in tomorrow's Washington Post print edition.

Posted by: Patricia Sullivan | October 8, 2009 5:04 PM

Ben's was the very first restaurant we took my son to after he was born (granted, he didn't order anything that day, since he was only about five days old, but hey, he was there!).

RIP Mr. Ali - you will be missed.

Posted by: EdTheRed | October 8, 2009 5:38 PM

Condolences and best wishes to the Ali family. Best restaurant in DC, regardless of price.

Posted by: gce1356 | October 8, 2009 5:59 PM

He must not have eaten his own food. Those half smokes would have killed him years ago..

Posted by: SMWE357 | October 8, 2009 6:17 PM

Ben's is one the the things that makes Washington a "town" and not just a city that is the nation's capital.

I've been a patron of Ben's Chili Bowl for 20+ years, and living in the neighborhood for 8. I'm sad today.

Prayers for the family. RIP Ben.

Posted by: PrinceBuster21 | October 8, 2009 6:55 PM

I worked at Ben's for three months the fall after I graduated from Howard back in 1977. I needed a job and Ms. Virgina hired me. U Street was on the down-swing back then and a lot of junkies would pass through on my morning shift. But I remember the staff treating folks with dignity and respect regardless of who they were. I was also experimenting with vegetarianism at the time, but I couldn't last...the chili was just too good! LONG LIVE BEN'S...LONG LIVE THE HALF SMOKE!

Posted by: Allritebro | October 8, 2009 8:37 PM

Don't feel too bad. Ben's a nice guy I guess and Bill Cosby is okey-dokey, but it was (and is) an all-cash business. So if Ben decided that one year he only sold 20 half smokers, by God that's all he sold, even if he made a quarter of a million dollars cooking those suckers.

Posted by: Extempraneous | October 8, 2009 9:18 PM

Best chili dog I've ever had-both the chili and the half smoke did it! RIP, sir and my condolences to your family.

Posted by: rgrnhawaii | October 8, 2009 9:53 PM

Thanks to Ben and his restaurant I was able to feed myself at reasonable cost while working at a non-profit on S street. Thank you and Gob Bless his family and employees. He will truly be miss.

Posted by: 1derboy | October 8, 2009 10:02 PM

If you "ain't" been to Ben's for a hotdog and chili, you "ain't" been to D.C.

Plain and simple.

Posted by: aherson613 | October 9, 2009 12:17 AM

If you are a Washingtonian and have not been to Ben's Chili Bowl you don't know what you are missing. There is nothing like Ben's half smoke with chili. Thank you to the Ben's family. My prayers are with you. Let the legacy continue.
Ms. V

Posted by: veronicaleftwich | October 9, 2009 8:57 AM

stop hating - there is nothing wrong with the script about Obama.
Reread it --- it makes perfect sense. We were not here to criticize but to pay respect to Mr. Ben. Let go of the negatives!!!!

Posted by: candy8110 | October 9, 2009 1:18 PM

God bless you Ben! Thank you for the gift that you gave to DC! I remember visiting Ben's Chili Bowl as a youngster in DC with my dad. Great memories!

Posted by: motownfn | October 12, 2009 12:08 PM

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