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Virginia Ali: The 'heart and soul' of Ben's Chili Bowl

Tuesday - 12/4/2012, 4:14pm  ET

Bens112.jpg
Virginia, dressed in pink, blends in with her employees behind the counter as she checks on the restaurant and welcomes customers to Ben's Chili Bowl. (WTOP/Heather Brady)
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Heather Brady, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - The story of Ben's Chili Bowl begins partly with its namesake, Mahaboob Ben Ali, a Trinidadian native who immigrated to the United States and opened the eatery after graduating from Howard University.

But the D.C. institution's past is also closely woven into the life of Virginia Ali, Ben's wife, who still helps run the restaurant with her children.

Raised near Tappahannock, Va., she was working at a bank in the D.C. area when a mutual friend introduced her to Ben. As the couple began talking about marriage, the idea of a restaurant surfaced.

Ben didn't intend to become a businessman, but his dream of a career in dentistry disappeared when he injured his back falling down an elevator shaft. After a long recovery, he could not continue attending Howard University's School of Dentistry, where he was working toward a degree. Instead, he returned to the job he used to put himself through school in the first place -- restaurant work.

As Virginia says, there was no question where to start the business.

"U Street would have been the only place to really open up a restaurant because this was the hub of the African-American community," Virginia says.

One morning in late October, the 78-year-old sat at a small table pushed up against a wall near the back of Ben's Next Door, a restaurant the Alis opened next to Ben's, as she began to tell the restaurant's story.

‘Black Broadway'

Ben relied on his experience working in the restaurant business, and Virginia took a leap of faith when they opened the Chili Bowl in 1958 in an old theater building -- the same spot the flagship restaurant occupies today. They planned their opening day to coincide with a large parade on U Street to give business a boost.

Virginia describes the first day of business as nerve-wracking. She recalls a conversation she had with Ben when she was deciding how involved she should be in the restaurant.

"Do you think I should quit my job?" she asked him.

"Sure. I need you here."

"Suppose it doesn't work?"

"Oh, it's going to work. If we have to build a shower in the back and bring in a bed, then you'll work during the day and serve customers while I sleep."

At the time, the nightlife on U Street was booming. Theaters and nightclubs drew big crowds of African Americans, which Virginia says led to the street nickname "black Broadway."

"A lot of it back (then) was people coming in from their parties with their gowns on," Virginia says. "They'd sit down and eat. Others would come in and say, ‘I need four to go, six to go, 10 to go,' whatever it was."

The Chili Bowl had a large window at the front where passersby could see into the restaurant -- a very modern touch when it first opened. The simple but savory chili dogs, chili half-smokes and bowls of chili made the restaurant a regular stop for partygoers.

The U Street area was a playground at the time for African-American luminaries as varied as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Nat King Cole and Martin Luther King Jr. -- all of whom stopped at Ben's.

"If they knew each other, they would come in and hang out together, or come in and just pick up what they wanted and go on out," says Virginia, who is African American. "We were a small place then."

The Chili Bowl also began a long and happy relationship with Bill Cosby, who started coming to the restaurant in 1959. Cosby was in the Navy and hadn't made a name for himself with his sense of humor yet. He was stationed at Quantico, Va., and also served at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

While he was in the area, he began dating his future wife, Camille Olivia Hanks.

"He wasn't a big star, but he was always funny," Virginia says. "He and Camille dated at the Chili Bowl. Bill fell in love with Camille, and the Chili Bowl and the half-smokes all at the same time."

Perseverance and Riots

Though businesses nationwide had a failure rate of more than 50 percent during the Chili Bowl's early years, the couple's determination strengthened the restaurant.

"There was no honeymoon," Virginia says. "Now that didn't mean we didn't take vacations, but one of us stayed."

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