U Street Icon Ben's Chili Bowl Celebrates 60th Anniversary With Daylong Block Party

During the Civil Rights era, Ben's was an important cornerstone along the U Street corridor

Washington, D.C. was filled with the sound of go-go music Wednesday as the District celebrated the 60th anniversary of a Washington institution: Ben's Chili Bowl.

The block party Wednesday was a tribute to Virginia Ali, who opened the venerable greasy spoon on U Street NW with her husband, Ben Ali, in 1958. 

Go-go bands Rare Essence, EU featuring Sugarbear and several other artists filled the air with music when the party kicked off Wednesday morning. The celebration will continue Wednesday night at the Lincoln Theater with a gala honoring Virginia Ali. 

A new street sign honoring Ben's was unveiled during a news conference that preceded the block party. Several celebrities attended the celebration, including Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Jackson and media mogul Cathy Hughes were added to the restaurant's famous mural, just hours before the celebration kicked off. 

"People come here and come back. This has become the kind of watering hole in the desert. This is the oasis," Jackson said after seeing his visage on the mural.

For the last 60 years, the restaurant has served up half-smoke sausages smothered in chili while feeding the souls of African Americans in the city.

During the Civil Rights era, Ben's was an important cornerstone along the U Street corridor, serving food to organizers of the March on Washington and workers from the nearby offices of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and The Southern Christian Leader Conference, the restaurant's historian, Bernard Demczuk, said in an essay posted in honor of the 60th anniversary. 

When Dr. Martin Luther King was killed on April 4, 1968, Ben's was the only business allowed to stay open as residents broken by the death of the Civil Rights icon took their anger to the streets, Demczuk said. 

Looters shattered windows at businesses in Columbia Heights, and along the U Street and H Street corridors. 

"There may be 25 or 30 young people or people just walking the street, just expressing their frustration and being destructive, actually. It was a scary time," Virginia Ali told News4 earlier this year. 

Many businesses were destroyed, but Ben's flagship location at 1213 U St. NW survived.

The establishment has long been a favorite with celebrities, including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and more recently former President Barack Obama. 

The restaurant had a long-standing relationship with comedian Bill Cosby, touting that he was one of just a few celebrities allowed to eat for free. He was featured prominently in a mural on the side of the building, along with Obama, radio host Donnie Simpson and music legend Chuck Brown. 

But as sexual assault allegations against Cosby grew, Ben's eventually painted over the famous mural. The owners said it had nothing to do with the allegations.

"It wasn't about that," co-owner Sonya Ali said last year, referring to the scandal. "We thought the weather has beaten up that mural over the last five years. This is a great time to refresh."

The mural was replaced last year and now features 15 famous African Americans with ties to the District, including Dave Chappelle, Dick Gregory, Jim Vance, Wale and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.

In recent years, the restaurant has opened locations in Arlington, Virginia, and along the H Street corridor. Satellite locations also dish up half-smokes at Washington Reagan National Airport, FedEx Field and Nationals Park.

All proceeds from Wednesday's sales will go to the Ben's Chili Bowl Foundation.

If you're not planning on going to the daylong celebration, you may want to avoid the U Street area. The popular corridor will be closed between 11th and 13th streets from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. There will also be parking restrictions along the route. 

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