Everyone calls her “Mom” or “Mrs. Ben,” but as the octogenarian co-founder of the landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl, Virginia Ali is rarely called by her first name, she recounted recently. But all of that is all right with her, because she knows that she is also the “Queen” of U Street.
It seems that this is her time, with Mother’s Day approaching, but not for that reason. Virginia Ali received the 2019 Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award in recognition of her 60-year career as co-founder of the original Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street, where she and her late husband Ben Ali, opened their doors in the same location as they are at now in August 1958.
In fact, Ben’s is the longest-running family-owned restaurant in the city. It has hosted so many celebrities, politicians and civil rights activists, it has warranted having its very own historian, Dr. Bernard Demczuk, who heads up the Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation, established after the death of Ben Ali in 2009.
“We like the community, and the community likes us,” Virginia Ali said at a recent film screening, held in a back room at the original Ben’s during Filmfest DC. The new documentary, “Traveling While Black,” by filmmaker and local arts maven Bonnie Nelson Schwarz, was set in Ben’s Chili Bowl circa 1958, in what looked like the old restaurant complete with jukeboxes and unimaginably low prices, but all in the VR (Virtual Reality) world.
“We wanted to open a business where our people were,” she remembered and shared with a rapt crowd who came for a panel discussion on the film. “We had three theaters and our own Howard [University] which helped us be an intellectual community. We had our own African-American bank, our own hotels and more. [ Ben and I] wanted to be married, and we wanted to be self-employed.”
And yes, Virginia has a starring role in the film, but also in a run of upcoming accolades. The intimate reception celebrating her award from the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) was held in downtown Washington last week with no shortage of input from a few of her ardent and powerful supporters: former Councilwoman Charlene Drew Jarvis, former Mayor Anthony Williams, and former WJLA-TV anchor Del Walters, among others.
“Virginia is a great feature, and so emblematic of the heart and soul of Washington, D.C.,” Williams said during his salute to Ali. “Really, so much of the story of Washington, D.C, so much of our city’s story could be told at Ben’s Chili Bowl.”
Ali is the matriarch of the original business and its offshoots in Northern Virginia, the H Street corridor, Nationals Park and the more formal yet still down-home style Ben’s Next Door, though her children now primarily run all the businesses.
“This history of civil rights, the fight for self-representation and determination, the fight to make this a great city in economic development, it all begins and it all ends at Ben’s Chili Bowl,” Williams said. “We can’t do any better and can’t have any better awardee than the great Virginia Ali.”
Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie echoed the former mayor’s sentiments.
“You’ve been able to change the landscape,” McDuffie, chair of the council’s Business and Economic Development Committee, told Ali. “And you have the staying power, even when the landscape has changed.”
Born in rural Virginia, Ali came to Washington after college and worked at Industrial Bank on the corner of 11th and U streets, just two blocks from the Chili Bowl. She still banks at the African-American-owned and -ran bank which was founded by the Mitchell family.
You can see her there or greeting people at the door of Ben’s, or even sitting down to a plate of salmon cakes and eggs for Sunday brunch at Ben’s Next Door. She always has a story to tell and love to share with all.
“I grew up in segregated schools and lived in segregated D.C.,” Ali said. “With my color, I could walk in anywhere in D.C. but I didn’t want to.”
That was the mindset that made Ben’s Chili Bowl a fixture on the U Street corridor, which in those pre-civil rights days was the downtown hub for African Americans. Ben’s has remained through the years, despite the changing neighborhood, for better or worse.
“I think we made progress, but I think it has stopped,” she added. “The same things are happening now that I saw before. To have seen Martin Luther King in Ben’s Chili Bowl and [knowing] the work that he did, then to witness his assassination, it was hard to see that. And now to see us going backward is hard.”
The Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award is one of the 21 awards presented during the RAMMY Awards season and is named in honor of legendary Washington restaurateur Duke Zeibert. The honoree is selected by RAMW’s Executive Committee and recognizes an individual whose hard work and outstanding initiative has increased the profile and success of the metropolitan Washington food service community and dining landscape. The full RAMMY Award ceremony will be held on June 30.
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