Food & Drink

My Restaurant Has Hosted Protestors Including MLK for More Than 60 Years

Virginia Ali reflects on the history of Ben's Chili Bowl and how her food has brought people together.

Virginia Ali Ben's Chili Bowl
Virginia Ali, owner of Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington DC | Getty Images and April Greer/Thrillist
Virginia Ali, owner of Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington DC | Getty Images and April Greer/Thrillist
Having owned and operated a cornerstone of the Black community in the nation’s capital for more than 60 years, Virginia Ali is nothing short of a historian. Her restaurant, Ben’s Chili Bowl, is famous for its iconic half-smoke, a half-beef half-pork sausage slathered with chili and topped with diced onions and shredded cheddar cheese, and in six decades behind the counter, Ali served everyone from neighbors she’s known for years to former President Barack Obama and celebrities like Bruno Mars and DJ Khaled. 

The side of the restaurant is emblazoned with a painted mural of prominent Black figures – Harriet Tubman, go-go musician Chuck Brown, comedian and DC native Dave Chappelle, Prince – and Ben’s Chili Bowl has been a gathering place for the community for decades. So when protests against police brutality erupted around the District, I talked to Ali about running a restaurant that's an institution in DC's Black community and how her food has brought people together. Here’s more from Virginia Ali in her own words, as told to Liz Provencher.

I’ll be 87 in December, and in one lifetime, I’ve experienced two bouts of riots. In 1968, we had been at Ben’s Chili Bowl for 10 years. We were readily accepted into the community and really became a meeting place and hangout spot for the neighborhood folks. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a satellite office nearby on 14th and U streets. So, whenever he was in town, he’d stop in the Chili Bowl. On occasion, I’d have the opportunity to sit with him and listen to him talk about his dreams. Not only was Dr. King’s office at 14th and U, but Stokely Carmichael (SNCC’s office) was right across the street. He came by the Bowl every day.

I remember so vividly the March on Washington in 1963, when thousands and thousands of people were here and Dr. King delivered his beautiful “I Have a Dream” speech. Ben and I would go down to Ben’s early in the morning, and then we’d try to make our way down to the march on the National Mall for a while. Then just when we thought it was starting to end, my husband and I would run back up to check in on the business because the demonstrators and activists would be coming back up to U Street, and many of them would come to eat at Ben’s. I was young, and we were proud to be a part of Dr. King’s movement for change. There were so many people in Washington all peacefully demonstrating, and I think that helped lead to the passing of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964 as well as the Voting Acts Bill in 1965.

When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, someone ran into the Chili Bowl and said Dr. King had been shot. We thought it couldn't possibly be true. This is a man who has marched all over the south and survived, spent plenty of nights in jail and survived, and he was marching and doing demonstrations non-violently and here he is, taken away from us violently. We saw the sadness in everyone coming into the Bowl. We were all crying. They were playing hymns on the radio, but within hours, sadness turned to frustration, frustration turned to anger, and the uprising began. There was a curfew in place for three or four nights, but Ben’s Chili Bowl was the only place allowed to remain open during the curfew because it was a safe haven for demonstrators, activists, city officials, and first responders, and we stayed open until 3 am.

I would simply like to see positive change before I leave this world. We have got to come together and do something to create systemic change within our laws to make this possible.

The area was really devastated. The Chili Bowl wasn’t touched, but most of the businesses were literally ruined and the sad thing is that they did not reopen and the middle class began to move away. It took 20 years to rebuild! I had faith and hung in there although it was a very difficult time. Restaurants have been a place for meeting, breaking bread together, and exchanging ideas; there’s just something about a table of food that relaxes everybody. Going to Ben’s every day for over 61 years greeting all of my guests has been such a joy for me. So when the pandemic hit, the restaurant business came to a halt and I had to stay home because of my age. We’ve been curtailed on so many fronts for the safety of our guests and team members. Now the tragic death of George Floyd! It is incomprehensible! I’m devastated! It saddens me to see that our children have to fight for the same basic human rights we fought for 52 years ago!

It’s a hard time for small businesses in this country. Period. Black or otherwise. I do know it's not easy to own and operate a small business right now, but the outpouring of love that we’ve received has been amazing. We all need to carry on our culture, so I think having black-owned businesses and black-owned restaurants in particular is important. We need to keep the culture alive for the next generation and the generation after that. It’s a great way to hang onto the history of African Americans. For example, U Street, where Ben’s Chili Bowl is located, was historically known as Black Broadway. That has changed tremendously, but the history is still there and there are a few businesses still associated with that street, like Ben’s Chili Bowl, Lee’s Flower Shop, and Industrial Bank. So there are a few businesses that have been able to hold on, and now to keep our history alive it is imperative to support each other.

At Ben’s Chili Bowl, we’ve touched a lot of people and a lot of people have touched us. I miss it so much. I miss being there and hearing the conversations of the demonstrators. I was watching the demonstrations and interviews on television this morning, but back in the day those same people would be coming by the Chili Bowl and we’d hear all those stories in person. It was wonderful.

It's so hard for me, at 86, to see that our young people have to deal with the same things we had to deal with so many years ago. I would simply like to see positive change before I leave this world. We have got to come together and do something to create systemic change within our laws to make this possible. I’m optimistic as I watch the young people today demonstrating all over the world for change! I’m proud of them and love them all!

You can support Ben’s Chili Bowl by ordering takeout, delivery, or buying a gift card. The Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation supports community service projects and non-profits and is currently working to provide meals to healthcare workers. You can donate here.

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Liz Provencher is an editorial assistant at Thrillist and former DC resident. You can talk to her at lprovencher@thrillist.com or follow her on Instagram.