Posts Tagged ‘Ben’s Chili Bowl’

In Memory of a DC Institution

Saturday, October 17th, 2009

Inspired by “Hundreds Gather to Celebrate Ben Ali” (Washington Post 10-17-09), “He Added Spice to Our Lives,” and “Life Goes On in Rhythm of Ben’s” (Washington Post 10/09/09) about the passing on Oct. 7 of Ben Ali, founder of Ben’s Chili Bowl, a DC institution since 1958 with (according to Bon Appétit magazine) the best chili in the country. See also “Obama Gets a Half-Smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl” (Washington Post 1/10/09) on President-elect Obama’s and DC Mayor Fenty’s visit to Ben’s this January. Ali was honored yesterday at the Lincoln Theater, which is right across the street from his diner.


Ben Ali died last week.

He was a DC institution.

He made a great chili dog,

But that wasn’t his only contribution.


Ben’s Chili Bowl opened

In 1958.

Since then, lots of famous people

Have gone there and ate.


One well-known black actor-to-be

Took his dates there while in the Navy in DC.

And was honored by a sign at Ben’s for all to see:

“Who eats free at Ben’s: Bill Cosby.”


Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, and Redd Foxx

Regularly ate and hung out there.

Cornel West, Dr. Dre, Denzel, Shaq, and many more

Also sampled Ben’s fare.


DC Mayor Fenty had lunch at Ben’s in January

(Like his predecessors Tony Williams and Marion Barry).

But this time, Mayor Fenty brought a guest of honor–

Newly elected President-Elect Barack Obama.


Obama saw the sign when paying and didn’t insist

To be added to Ben’s exclusive list.

But the very next day

Ben added him anyway.


But what made Ben’s great

Wasn’t the famous people that there ate.

Nor was it just the half smokes and chili

(though those were both first rate).


Ben’s was a local hang-out,

A veritable community center.

People from all walks of life

Were always welcome to enter.


Ben himself was from Trinidad,

Of Indian family origin.

Those were tough times in America

For someone with dark skin.


But Ben didn’t let that get him down.

He worked three jobs and drove a taxi downtown,

Even after opening Ben’s the extra jobs retaining

(Most notably as a motivational speaker in sales training).


The restaurant’s place in the community

Became clear during the ‘68 unrest

That followed the murder of Dr. King

And his racist assassin’s arrest.


Ben’s was one of the only buildings untouched.

During those tumultuous days.

Ben fed protesters, police, and firemen

While the neighborhood was ablaze.


Others left after the riots,

But Ben’s stayed open for business.

That by itself his commitment

To the neighborhood attests.


Through decades of downturn,

Decay and drug disputes,

Ben stayed put,

Never abandoning his U Street roots.


When the U Street Metro was being built

Ben’s sat atop a giant construction pit.

To some that might have seemed the time

To move out or to quit.


But Ben stuck it out,

As did his loyal clientel.

And when the Metro opened,

Things in the neighborhood started to go well.


U Street became cool again.

More people from outside started to go.

Bill Cosby mentioned Ben’s

On the Oprah Winfrey Show.


Ben’s was also featured in Hollywood movies

Like The Pelican Brief and State of Play

When the directors wanted

The feel of the District to convey.


Ben himself was never shy

(If you tried his chili, you know why).

But it wasn’t just chili that made the place,

It was Ben’s personality and grace.


Ben loved inspirational phrases

And didn’t hesitate to sing his own praises.

It’s his life and legacy that inspire,

Achievements to which we all aspire.


Over 50 years of historic change,

Through decades of toil and strife,

With his generosity and spirit,

Ben added spice to the city’s life.


At Ben’s memorial yesterday

His contributions were commended.

And when chili dogs were served afterwards,

Not a person was offended.


So head on down to U Street

Next time you’re in DC

And stop by and get some

Of the country’s best chili.

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