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Founder of diner in Washington

October 10, 2009|Times Staff and Wire Reports

Ben Ali, 82, the founder of Ben's Chili Bowl diner, a landmark in Washington's black business and entertainment district and a frequent stop for politicians and celebrities, died of congestive heart failure Wednesday at his home in Washington.

Ali opened the restaurant with his wife, Virginia, in an old movie house in 1958, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. It became a longtime fixture in the black business community, serving up bowls of chili and its trademark chili-covered half-smoke sausages.

Born in Trinidad in 1927, Ali earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Nebraska and moved to Washington to study at Howard University's medical and dental schools. He withdrew, however, after injuring his back in a fall.

He and his new wife opened the restaurant on nearby U Street, then known as America's "Black Broadway" for its thriving black-owned shops and theaters. Jazz greats Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald performed along the strip and were known to visit Ben's.

More recently, Bill Cosby and President Obama have been favorite guests. This year the Ali family put up a sign: "Who eats free at Ben's: -- Bill Cosby -- The Obama Family." Before, only Cosby ate for free.

The restaurant has survived tumultuous times, including the 1968 race riots after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, but Ben's remained open, serving both protesters and police. The following years saw urban blight and subsequent gentrification in the surrounding neighborhood.

Virginia Ali, who oversaw the business with sons Kamal and Nizam in recent years, said the business survived because of community support and will be open for many years to come.


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