Bye Ben, and thanks for the Chili.
October 8, 2009 6:25 PM   Subscribe

Ben Ali, co-founder (with his wife Virginia) of Ben's Chili Bowl, died yesterday. Ben's is a favorite spot of politicians, actors, sports figures, and everyday people of all backgrounds. Back story on Ben's and some video of Obama at the bowl.

Please share your Ben's Chili Bowl stories below!
posted by serazin (30 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I went there after leaving a bar last week and waited in line for 30 minutes to find out that they don't take credit cards and went home chili-less.

the end.
posted by empath at 6:31 PM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Man, that's too bad. I used to eat there and the Florida Avenue Grill at least once every couple of weeks for twenty-five years.

Thanks for the chow and the memories.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:44 PM on October 8, 2009

Heh - you're right empath, if only it happened in New York City, then it would have been FPP-worthy.
posted by kcds at 6:46 PM on October 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


Ben's is my favorite place in DC. I try and go there every time I visit. Sometimes it's fast and sometime's it slow, but it's always fucking delicious. I have a chili half smoke, chili fries, and a vanilla milkshake. It's like DC's outpost of the Detroit coney island, but the chili at Ben's is a lot spicier and less.. forgiving. rest in peace Ben Ali.
posted by ofthestrait at 6:52 PM on October 8, 2009

I ate there just about a month ago. Like many Ben's customers, I was on my way to see a show at the 9:30 Club.

my daughter's show


posted by MrMoonPie at 6:57 PM on October 8, 2009

I ate chili for dinner tonight. It was not from Ben's.

I enjoyed it.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:00 PM on October 8, 2009

I too ate chili tonight that was not from Ben's.

I thought I enjoyed it at the time, but reading this FPP, I realize I hardly enjoyed it at all. RIP Ben.

posted by ulotrichous at 7:19 PM on October 8, 2009


Hell ya MrMoonPie…she rocks.
posted by ShawnString at 7:20 PM on October 8, 2009

Wow some really strong emotions tonight in the chili thread. Thank god it's only a post about chili or we would need a meta callout in short order.
posted by nola at 7:21 PM on October 8, 2009

As a former student in DC, I ate at Ben's many times. (Suffered heartburn many times too, but that's beside the point.) Sad to see him go, but fortunately the place is too much of an institution now to disappear.

posted by armage at 7:22 PM on October 8, 2009

Many a time have I stumbled into Ben's after a night on the town. A friend of mine knows some of the people that work there, so we also get awesome service (it helps that he tips really well). I've never been particularly fond of DC, but some of my best memories in the city are of me sitting at a table with my friends, marveling over how the same chili cheese fries, milkshake, and split half smoke topped with everything can be so good every single time we go.

They had just expanded to open a new restaurant next door. All the more reason to check it out as soon as I can.
posted by MidAtlantic at 7:39 PM on October 8, 2009


My first date (well, more or less) with my boyfriend was at Ben's. Friends had set us up and after a show, I made a comment about how I didn't have to be anywhere the next morning and after some shyness (on his part) and some negotiation by our friends, the two of us ended up at Ben's Chili Bowl at about 1 a.m. I was new to the area and I didn't realize the significance of Ben's at that point. To me, it was just this cool, urban neighborhood place that was open late.

That was nearly seven years ago. It's still one of my favorite memories.

I'm much sadder about this than I expected to be. I think Ben and Virginia weathered a lot of change (and change that's still happening to U Street) and persevered. I love that Ben's never became a "brand" or a chain or a franchise -- they were happy with the (not insignificant) success they had (I have no issue with Ben's Next Door -- I actually need to get there here soon).

Thank you, Ben Ali.
posted by darksong at 8:01 PM on October 8, 2009


Iconic institution. Well worth the FPP. Very sad that he's gone.
posted by Slap Factory at 8:01 PM on October 8, 2009

posted by awesomebrad at 8:28 PM on October 8, 2009

Well, damn.

posted by rtha at 8:42 PM on October 8, 2009

Warning: hagiography ahead.

I live six blocks from Ben's and what's really remarkable is that even as a relative newcomer to the city (been here 5 years), that block of U St. is emblematic of the constant change--perhaps even arguably betterment--in the city. When I arrived, the Green Line was already completed and running smoothly, though I was warned that it mostly connected the transitional and less-safe (read: black) parts of town and that I, as an out-of-town grad school student, should keep my distance "for my safety." Which I almost swallowed, but turned out to be generally ridiculous: most of the nightlife spots with any appeal to me (O Black Cat, O 9:30 Club, O ...even you, Saint-Ex) are clustered around there, and the 14th and U commercial strips were surprisingly well integrated into what was otherwise a complex of beautiful and quiet residential neighborhoods.

As a nightowl 20-something, I often found myself on U Street at closing time with the hordes of people who stumbled out of bars and suddenly realized that it was after midnight and they were hungry, and Ben's was--barring the dreaded 7-11 down the block--the only place to get food at that hour. And yeah, there was always a line, but unlike the various Jumbo Slices in Adams Morgan, no one was fighting or puking outside. It was a place of civility.

Inside was packed with people happy to still be going in the wee hours, and the walls were covered with informative bits of neighborhood history...that's where I learned that the construction of the Green Line, which required digging up the block of U Street in front of Ben's, killed off most of the other businesses in the area, but the Chili Bowl was tenacious in holding on. And put that in the context of this neighborhood barely surviving the riots in 1968 after MLK Jr.'s death: just 10 years later in 1978, the Metro construction proposal handed down from on high required that this neighborhood--once known as "Black Broadway," the place where Duke Ellington got his start (and where now a set of nigh-unaffordable condos bearing his name now stand)--was going to be dug up for over a decade and let rot some more for over a decade. But Ben's made it, serving as an outpost of sanity in a land of despair.

Somewhat ironically, about a year ago my friends and I made an informal moratorium on going to Ben's late at night. (It was already acknowledged that the food didn't taste as good before midnight, but that could be the alcohol talking.) I think we were just getting tired of the routine. But then Election Night 2008 happened, and the celebration was centered...well, guess where. It was a street festival of immense proportions. It was sensational.

And then someone put an Obama ice sculpture out front on Ben's (which in the dead of DC winter, lasted a while).
And then Obama showed up.
And the New York Times profiled it, as part of its suite of "oh, hey, look, this Washington place apparently has some cool cachet too" stories.
And suddenly every day when I exited the U St. Metro station on my way home from work, there was a line of tourists taking pictures of the place and waiting to get in to buy a half-smoke during daylight hours. The insanity! It's died down over the course of the year, and now that I'm in my 30s and more fond of sleeping at the witching hour, I haven't really made it back into the Chili Bowl. (I had dinner at Next Door not too long ago, though, and the expansion/diversification was a genius move and a nice capstone for what I had no idea was the end of his life's work.)

Ben's is a great little place, and its proprietor/namesake (God rest his soul) was a fascinating and laudable man. Sure, Shep Fairey put his big "HOPE" poster on the side of Marvin (right around the corner, named in honor of Mr. Gaye), but that johnny-come-lately doesn't have the institutional memory. Mr. Ali, I salute you.
posted by kittyprecious at 9:08 PM on October 8, 2009 [5 favorites]

Tragic. Hope Ben's stays in the family. We should have a meetup there some time.
posted by phrontist at 9:14 PM on October 8, 2009

posted by jewzilla at 9:15 PM on October 8, 2009

Wow, I just watched "State of Play" last night - that's got to be the restaurant where Russell Crowe's character had his briefcase stolen? I love the thought of these kinds of places (but it makes me guilty I haven't been supporting my own local Diners with Character).
posted by NorthernLite at 10:08 PM on October 8, 2009

Ben's sons have been running the place for years, so luckily this means it's unlikely to close.

I love the thought of these kinds of places (but it makes me guilty I haven't been supporting my own local Diners with Character).

Trust me, if you lived in DC, this isn't the kind of place you would frequent out of guilt. You frequent Ben's because sometimes, you just must have their chili cheese fries. I didn't miss DC at all when I left, but I did miss their chili enough to wonder on the green if anyone knew the recipe.

posted by lunasol at 10:53 PM on October 8, 2009

I liked Ben's and I still do for a number of reasons. In spite of that I don't think I have ever actually thought the food there was any good. I still wish that DC had more places like that, somehow I don't think that "Fish in Da Hood" is going to garner the same sort of cachet when Georgia Avenue blows up.
posted by BobbyDigital at 6:49 AM on October 9, 2009

Longtime DC resident here, also tipping my hat to Mr. Ali.
posted by GriffX at 6:51 AM on October 9, 2009

I'm somewhat ashamed to say that I've never eaten at Ben's, and I don't think I've ever had a chili dog of any sort, ever. (Not sure why...just never came up.)

But as someone who has lived in the area for a while, and seen all the landmarks of my youth gentrified away, I'm really glad it's there. It proves DC isn't just for the politicians and power brokers, people live here and it has a soul.
posted by JoanArkham at 7:22 AM on October 9, 2009

I learned that he passed away yesterday from a woman at a crosswalk. It's a testament to his place in the DC culture when strangers are breaking the news and sharing their grief with one another.

For those outside of DC, an introduction to the half-smoke.

Ben's sons have been running the place for years, so luckily this means it's unlikely to close.

I'm met Ben's son Nizam, in talking to him for 10 minutes he's pretty clear that he loves his job, his employees, and his customers. So the Chili Bowl is in good hands.
posted by peeedro at 7:47 AM on October 9, 2009

I grew up in DC in the 80s, pre-green line, when the 9:30 club was still on F, d.c. space was not just a memory, and you could still play volleyball at Tracks. I remember when most of Ben's block was boarded up. My parents remember when most of the block was set on fire in April of 1968. Just as I ignored their warnings about the neighborhood at night, my folks ignored _their_ parents' warnings just to enjoy a forbidden half-smoke.

To me, it's always been an institution, but in the last decade or so, it seems as if it's gone from neighborhood institution to national treasure that all segments of the DC population knows about (thanks in no small part to Mr. Cosby, the green line, and the revitalization of the area)... There's a certain irony to the fact that gentrification brought the exposure that will allow Ben's to survive without Ben and Virginia.

Thanks Ben, not only for perfecting the combination of chili and spicy tube steak, but for staying open when your entire neighborhood closed up shop and left town, and then stubbornly sticking around when the street became a hole in the ground for metro construction, and an entirely new neighborhood moved in around you.


Now... where can I get a legitimate half smoke in San Francisco?
posted by toxic at 9:15 AM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Truly a DC institution...

posted by jonp72 at 9:18 AM on October 9, 2009

I ate there once while in town for conference. Contrary to expectations their menu has a lot of good options for a vegetarian. Tasty too.
posted by Rarebit Fiend at 11:09 AM on October 9, 2009

Food of a thousand punks and hardcore kids, among many, many others.

posted by streetdreams at 4:19 PM on October 9, 2009

Half-smokes are so freakin' good there. Was totally worth waiting outside for an hour the night of the inauguration.

posted by ignignokt at 9:40 PM on October 9, 2009

Such an institution and a great example of the "Obama Effect." I think he visited there once, over a year ago and you can still find lines going out of the door on a weekday afternoon! Ben will be missed!!!
posted by credit-expert at 6:45 PM on October 12, 2009

« Older Sugar: The Bitter Truth   |   A-1949 is now in Permanent Storage Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments