Ben Ali, founder of famous Washington, D.C.,eateries Ben’s Chili Bowl and Next Door, died on Wednesday night, October 7.
Beyond operating his famous greasy spoon since 1952, he was something of a legend for Blacks in the region. Bill Cosby often raved in the press about his friendship with Ben and the unique D.C. half-smoke hot dogs he prepared, while President Barack Obama made sure to be seen eating there during the first few months of his presidency with the District’s mayor, Adrian Fenty, in tow.
Besides the celebrity affiliations and local food, Ben’s place on Washington’s U Street corridor is also highly revered. The area raised jazz great Duke Ellington, housed Lincoln Theatre and experienced a revitalization in the last part of the 20th century that made it trendy not only for the upwardly mobile African-Americans of the area, but also for anyone that was cultured and cool along the East Coast. Ben’s, as the restaurant is affectionately called, was there for all of that.
Ben himself was a migrant to Washington after spending his childhood in Trinidad. After earning a degree in dentistry from Howard University, he married a Virginian woman and opened the restaurant several weeks later. Even then, the restaurant attracted the Black glitterati of the city, like Nat King Cole and Miles Davis, who would eat there after performing at the clubs along U Street. He was also the only restaurant to survive the local riots of 1968.
Ben had begun to expand his brand over the past few years, opening a second Ben’s location in 2008 and a fancier restaurant, Ben’s Next Door, in 2009. Ben’s two sons, Kamal and Nizam, manage those business.