Virginia Ali and her husband Ben opened Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958, the same year that they got married. Ever since their opening, the restaurant has become a hot spot for its famous chili, half-smokes and milkshakes. In 1968, U Street flooded with furious rioters after the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Derrick Richardson, 31, is the new general manager for Ben’s Chili Bowl as of 2021. He expressed his thoughts on the four-day event in 1968 and how it has impacted the restaurant. “It was kind of like ‘Black Wallstreet.’ A lot of Black businesses were on U Street at the time. When the riots happened, buildings got broken into, robbed and looted. Ben’s Chili Bowl wasn’t touched at all,” said Richardson.
Ben’s Chili Bowl, the Industrial Bank and Lee’s Flower and Card Shop were the only businesses that stayed open during the riots. Richardson said that rioters wrote quotes like “soul brother” on the windows of the restaurant in order to let them know that there is “peace,” despite the rioting.
“It was an interesting place to be because even though there were police across the street, rioters and looters on this side, Ben’s Chili Bowl was kind of like a safe zone. But once you stepped out, things changed,” said Richardson. People were brought together through food and a feeling of safe-community and Ben’s Chili Bowl. The employees, especially, experience a family-oriented environment while working at the restaurant.
Fitfit Yehwel, 48, has been working as a team member at Ben’s Chili Bowl for six years. “If I have a problem, I feel comfortable going to my managers. They listen and deal with situations calmly. They are my family. My original family was in Ethiopia, so here, these people are the only family I have,” said Yehwel.
Being a family-oriented and operated business, Ben’s Chili Bowl makes it easy and comfortable for employees like Richardson and Yehwel to join the team. Various renowned comedians, musicians, athletes and political figures like Dave Chapelle, Kevin Hart, DJ Kool, Serena Williams and Barack Obama have visited Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street.
“When you come to D.C., you need to come to Ben’s Chili Bowl. Mr. Ben Ali was innovative at a young age and said, ‘with Chili, to make it different, I’m going to add some spices’ and that made our chili unique to other places,” said Richardson.
Not only is their chili a bestseller at the restaurant, but so are their half-smokes and milkshakes. A half-smoke is a signature dish sausage found in Washington D.C., “generally smoked before it’s grilled.” Customers can choose between beef, turkey and Field Roast Veggie Dog when ordering Ben’s Classic Chili Dogs.
If customers are craving something sweet, there are a wide variety of milkshakes and desert options available on the menu. Options include Virginia’s favorite banana pudding, rotating cake slices and milkshakes like vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, cherry, coffee, maple and Oreo.
Now, Ben’s Chili Bowl offers many vegan options like veggie burgers, subs, hot dogs and salads, opening to another huge community. Unwind and feel at-home visiting Ben’s Chili Bowl original location at 1213 U Street NW or explore their other restaurants at 1001 H St. NE and in Arlington, Virginia at 1 Aviation Cir.
By Nicole Milanovic
November 10, 2022