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‘We really mean something to this community': Ben's Chili Bowl matriarch recalls 65 years of highs, lows and half-smokes

Ben's Chili Bowl celebrates its 65th anniversary on Aug. 22, 2023, with a block party, go-go music and free half-smokes

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In 1958, NASA was created, the Hope Diamond was donated to the Smithsonian, and Ben and Virginia Ali opened Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street.

As the classic D.C. restaurant got ready to celebrate its 65th birthday with a block party bash, News4’s Tommy McFLY sat down with Virginia Ali, who shared the love story behind the restaurant and the most memorable moments from the past six and a half decades.

The couple met when Ben walked into the Industrial Bank of Washington, and Virginia served him. Ben went back the next day and had the nerve to leave a note with his phone number: “Please call me.”

“I thought, he’s pretty cute, but I’m not calling him,” she remembered, adding that Ben was a stranger. “Not ladylike to do such a thing.”

Ahead of the 65th birthday party for Ben's Chili Bowl, Virginia Ali shares how she and Ben Ali fell in love and opened the iconic restaurant that serves up D.C.'s signature dish. News4's Tommy McFly reports.

But when Ben called the bank the next day and told his entire life story, Virginia figured she’d give out her home phone number. They knew some of the same people, after all.

And soon enough, they’d fallen in love. Ben shared the idea of opening a restaurant, which appealed to Virginia because she's always loved interacting with different kinds of people.

“It was always going to be Ben’s Chili Bowl, which included chili and half-smokes. Which was really a breakfast sausage but we thought it would be great on a hot dog bun,” Virginia Ali said. "A nice, steamed hot dog bun with mustard, onions and chili, and it turned out to be the number one seller. Still is today's. D.C.'s signature dish."

Virginia, who turns 90 in December, says the future is bright. Her children are talking about franchising, and Ben’s Chili Bowl recently started selling its signature chili and half-smokes at Giant food stores.

“I’m just a happy old lady,” Virginia said. “You know, in 65 years, I’ve experienced many challenges, many wonderful experiences. And now I’m ready for another wonderful experience.”

Ben's Chili Bowl is celebrating the restaurant's 65th anniversary with a birthday block party on Aug. 22.

Among the wonderful experiences: speaking with Martin Luther King Jr., who was a regular at Ben’s while planning the March on Washington, Ali said.

The restaurant weathered riots after King was assassinated in 1968, and says it was asked to stay open during curfews to feed first responders. After the riots, many businesses nearby didn't reopen. But Ben's kept serving chili and half-smokes, even as U Street was torn up to make room for the construction of Metro.

A 60-foot hole sat in front of the restaurant from 1988 to 1992, Ben's Chili Bowl says. Virginia had a contractor put up a sign directing customers to turn into an alley to pick up food. The narrow alley couldn't accommodate more than two cars, but customers came anyway.

"They said, 'I need my fix!'" Virginia said.

Ali spoke with News4's Tommy McFly about the riots in the city after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968 and how their business survived Metro construction for several years in the 80s and 90s.

And in 2009, Ali welcomed Barack Obama into her restaurant.

“We don’t know what’s going on. The Secret Service comes in, and next thing you know, here comes President Obama,” she said. “He’d just moved to town, and the very first place he went to have something to eat was at Ben’s Chili Bowl.”

She said serving the first Black president of the United States was an absolutely amazing experience.

“I think that may have been the best of times,” Ali said. “At my age, I didn’t expect to ever see it.”

Another moment that really sticks with Virginia is from a press conference held to mark the restaurant’s 40th anniversary. Crowds of reporters attended, and customers were lined up until they closed at 3 a.m.

“We really mean something to this community,” she said, putting her hand on her heart.

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