WASHINGTON -- The District of Columbia got some really sad news Thursday morning, as news spread about the passing of the founder of a local institution.
Ali had been fighting off-and-on health issues. He had recently returned from a cruise with his wife, Virginia, City Paper reported. The couple was approaching their 51st anniversary.
Ali died of congestive heart failure, his daughter-in-law Sonya Ali told the Associated Press.
"I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of the founder and namesake of Ben’s Chili Bowl, one of the greatest treasures in the District of Columbia," Mayor Adrian Fenty said in a written statement. "Ben Ali was a man who invested his life in a small business that weathered many storms and became the soul of a neighborhood and the pride of our city. Though we mourn the loss of Mr. Ali, we are grateful that his legacy will live on in our hearts. On behalf of the residents of the District of Columbia, I want to thank the Ali family for sharing Ben with us."
Alongside a picture of Ali and beneath the caption "June 13, 1927-October 7, 2009," the Ben's Chili Bowl website reads:
"The Ali Family and all of th Ben's Chili Bowl and Ben's Next Door Family want to thank Ben Ali for leading this legacy and allowing us to follow in his dream. We miss you and love you."
D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray said the District "has lost a well-respected and iconic figure in the shaping of the historic U Street corridor."
"Through the riots of the 60’s, and neighborhood transformation, Mr. Ali, his wife and sons have kept Ben’s Chili Bowl a thriving business and community meeting place," Gray said. "So much so, that it caught the attention of even President Barack Obama and the nation during his inauguration. Many D.C. residents have enjoyed a chili dog at the U Street establishment and been greeted by the warm reception of the people behind the counter, which emanated from Ben Ali’s spirit and the way he and his family ran the business. In fact, I am a regular patron. Mr. Ali truly will be missed by those of us who appreciated the mark he and Ben’s Chili Bowl have left on the U Street corridor and across the District of Columbia."
"Ben Ali not only established what has become an institution in our town, Ben Ali and his family themselves have become an institution," Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said in a statement released Thursday. "Ben’s Chili Bowl not only renders a service to the public, but the family is also well-known for its wonderful service to the District of Columbia."
Ben's has been a U Street fixture since the Alis started the diner as newlyweds in 1958. Starting with $5,000, they renovated the building at 1213 U St. NW, which was built in 1910 and served as a movie house and pool hall before the Alis began serving their chili on Aug. 22, 1958.
The restaurant's a destination for tourists and residents alike -- as much for its history and celebrity customers as for its delicious chili-smothered half-smokes, dogs, burgers and fries.
Known as Black Broadway, the U Street corridor teamed with legendary African-American entertainers in the '50s and '60s. Ben's website lists the likes of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby as regulars over the years, and their pictures -- along with the pictures of many more celebrities and professional athletes who visited the establishment -- cover the walls.
"Ben was a nice man," Cosby said. "This is very sad."
When the assassination of another famous patron -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- sparked riots in 1968, Ben's stayed open while much of the city shut down.
The Bowl survived U Street's urban blight in the '70s. Though business improved in the '80s, Metro drove it away with the construction of the Green Line across the street, but the Alis stayed open with a reduced staff. The restaurant has thrived over the past decade with the revival and gentrification of the neighborhood.
"Through the best times and the worst times in our city's history, Ben was eternally optimistic," D.C. Councilman Kwame Brown said in a statement.
Ali was a native of Trinidad who studied at Howard University after moving to D.C.
When Ben and Virginia Ali retired, they left the business in their sons' capable hands. The ever-present line out the door keeps getting longer.
Since Nationals Park opened in 2008, Ben's has been serving baseball fans from several stands at the stadium, including the club level Ben's Chili Nacho Bar. And the day after Christmas, Ben's Next Door opened at 1211 U St. NW, offering more formal dining, a full bar and nine flatscreen TVs.
Another celebrity created a new Ben's buzz in the winter. President Barack Obama joined Mayor Adrian Fenty there for lunch. Then during inauguration week, the line stretched for blocks as Obama fans followed in his footsteps.
No doubt many a loyal customer will pack the diner in the coming days and weeks to celebrate Ben Ali's life and work and hoist a half-smoke in his honor.