I stumbled across Ben’s Chili Bowl via a quick Google search that culminated in booking an Uber to take me to the most consistent result of ‘best black owned restaurant in dc’. “This is a famous restaurant”, my Uber driver remarked as he pulled up on U Street. He wasn’t wrong; As you face the entrance of Ben’s Chili Bowl, an imposing sign in big, bold, blue lettering serves as a reminder that the establishment in front of you is a Washington landmark (since 1958 no less!). This sign stands in contrast to the otherwise vivid red and yellow colours that adorn the storefront and, for me, it is truly the focal point of what Ben’s represents and its significance as a cultural stronghold in Washington DC for the past 60 years.
The restaurant was set up by husband and wife Ben and Virginia Ali in 1958 in Washington DC’s iconic U Street corridor and is adjacent to the Lincoln Theatre, another cultural landmark. From the moment it opened its doors, the restaurant has served as a pillar of Washington DC’s African American community. Ben’s donated food to both the March on Washington in 1963 and the Poor People’s Campaign in 1960. Its doors remained open for business during the 1968 DC riots. Over the decades, the restaurant’s clientele includes a long list of celebrities and other notable guests such as Pope Francis and the Obamas, whose likeness is painted on a nearby mural. In 1999, the alleyway abutting the restaurant was officially named Ben Ali way in homage to its role and significance in the local community.
When my turn finally came to visit Ben’s on a cold February evening, I opted not to go for the famous chili menu, choosing instead the more varied menu options offered at their sister restaurant, Ben’s Next Door. Next Door, as the name suggests, is conveniently situated next to the original Ben’s. It was established in 2008 and, as with Ben’s Chili Bowl, is now managed by Ben and Virginia’s sons.
As I sat eating my seafood grits and devilled eggs and sipping my happy hour cocktail, I heard a voice behind me asking whether I was enjoying the food. “I am” I replied as I turned around only to realise it was Virginia. “Good” she said, “the grits are my favourite dish here”. Although she is now in her 80s, Virginia still looks strikingly similar to the image of herself painted on the mural outside Ben’s. After we exchanged a few pleasantries, she told me more about the restaurant’s history, most of which I already thought I knew through Google searched by this point. Nevertheless, the history lessons sounded far better coming from a person who had lived through it all. So I continued to listen.