University librarian and archivist present GW-owned historical records from the restaurant during celebration.
By Julyssa Lopez
Ben’s Chili Bowl celebrated its 55th birthday on Thursday with longtime fans and members of the community, including actor and comedian Bill Cosby, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, B.S. ’64, GW University Librarian and Vice Provost for Libraries Geneva Henry and University Archivist Bergis Jules.
The late Ben Ali and his wife, Virginia, opened Ben’s Chili Bowl as a small sandwich shop in 1958. It has since evolved into a beloved restaurant in the U Street corridor that has fed its chili half-smokes to celebrities ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Bono to President Barack Obama. The James Beard Foundation honored the restaurant with an “America’s Classics” award in 2004.
The history of Ben’s Chili Bowl is rooted in service to D.C. During the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael urged the late Mr. Ali to keep the restaurant open to serve first responders trying to restore order in the city. Mr. Ali passed away in 2009, but his sons Nizam and Kalam Ali have worked to uphold Ben’s Chili Bowl’s reputation as a neighborhood staple devoted to the community.
In 2011, the George Washington University received a historic collection from Ben’s Chili Bowl, now housed in the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library’s Africana Research Center. The collection includes historic papers, such as an original menu from 1963, payroll books from the restaurant’s early years of business and one of 6,000 calendars that the late Mr. Ali distributed to honor Dr. King following the civil rights leader’s assassination. GW also digitized the documents for scholars to study worldwide.
Ms. Henry and Mr. Jules were asked to provide remarks and present the 1963 menu to a crowd gathered in front of the restaurant during Thursday’s celebration.
“We’re very proud at the George Washington University to preserve these materials and make them available to the community. It’s not just about the business—it’s about the contributions that Ben’s Chili Bowl has made to the Washington, D.C. area,” Ms. Henry said.
The celebration coincided with the birthday of D.C. music legend Chuck Brown. It was also a chance for the Ali family to promote their plans of expanding the restaurant with another location on H Street.
Speakers at the event included Mayor Gray, D.C. Councilmember Marion Barry, Reverend Jesse Jackson and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. They each discussed the restaurant’s longstanding tradition of bringing D.C. residents together with a welcoming atmosphere and mouthwatering food. D.C. United player Chris Pontius and representatives from the Washington Eagles also attended to present the Ali family with custom sports jerseys.
Mr. Cosby led much of the program. He is considered Ben’s Chili Bowl’s most famous regular—his voice can even be heard on the restaurant’s voicemail message. He began frequenting Ben’s Chili Bowl in the 1960s when he was stationed in Bethesda, Md., while serving in the U.S. Navy. He and President Obama are the only two patrons who get to eat at Ben’s Chili Bowl for free.
The comedian introduced several longtime employees, some of whom have worked at Ben’s Chili Bowl for more than 30 years. He also welcomed Aniekan Udofia, an artist who spray-painted a mural of Mr. Cosby and President Obama on Ben’s Chili Bowl’s exterior wall through a commission from MuralsDC.
Mr. Cosby concluded the celebration by calling Ms. Ali and her sons to the stage to recognize their restaurant’s contributions and to honor the vision of the late Mr. Ali.
“Ben’s Chili Bowl is not only a place to come and visit and meet your friends, but a place of humanity. That’s what their philosophy has been about,” Mr. Cosby said.