Remembering Founder Of Iconic D.C. Restaurant

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A little piece of Washington, D.C., history died this past week. Restaurateur Ben Ali opened the Washington hot spot Ben's Chili Bowl in 1958 in the city's U Street corridor. Over the years, Duke Ellington played just down the street, civil rights leader Stokley Carmichael used Ben's as a meeting spot, riots raged outside, and finally the area rebounded as a nightlife and residential hub. Through it all, Ben's specialty endured — a "half-smoke" sausage smothered in chili and cheese. Ben Ali died on Wednesday at the age of 82.

GUY RAZ, host:

If there's one place here in Washington that's always welcomed everyone with a smile and, in a good way, a little heartburn, it's Ben's Chili Bowl. The iconic pink and white façade with the yellow sign is hard to miss on U Street. It's one of the city's oldest and most successful black-owned restaurants. And for 51 years, Ben's has served up a legendary local delicacy, the chili half-smoke. It's a spicy, beef and pork sausage slathered in chili, onions and mustard.

This past week, Ben Ali, the founder of Ben's Chili Bowl, died at the age of 82.

Mr. MAURICE HARCUM (Manager, Ben's Chili Bowl): He was pretty stern, pretty much into detail about how he wanted his store ran. And he didn't take any mess.

RAZ: That's Maurice Harcum. He's worked behind the counter at Ben's for more than a decade. The décor here has barely changed since 1958. Photos of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and now Barack Obama line the walls. There's even a small sign behind the cash register that reads: Who eats free at Ben's? Bill Cosby and the Obama family. Everyone else has to pay, and it's cash only.

Ben Ali was an immigrant from Trinidad. When he opened the Chili Bowl, U Street was known as America's black Broadway, a strip of shops and theaters where Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole played to packed houses. But as Maurice Harcum explains, Ben's is one of the few places on the street that survived and thrived during its ups and downs.

Mr. HARCUM: U Street was torn apart after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Everything was tore apart except for us. We survived the drug wars. There were shootings and rival gang wars right out front of here, but they never brought it in here.

RAZ: Long-time regular John Shetfield(ph) sits at the counter, waiting for his chili half-smoke.

Mr. JOHN SHETFIELD: I was here during the riots. And during the riots, they touched everybody's places but this place, you know, because Ben always reached out to the ones underprivileged, you know, never said no to nobody that I know.

RAZ: Today, this neighborhood is once again a center of nightlife in the city. Luxury condos and high-end shops now line the street. And the crowd at Ben's is usually a mixture of regulars, tourists and revelers ambling by after midnight.

Local Anthony Pedaway(ph) says they come here to the house Ben Ali built for one simple reason.

Mr. ANTHONY PEDAWAY: It's the Chili Bowl spot. You had to get a hot dog. That was the main attraction of coming up U Street, you know, all of the lights, you know, the people were out here, the pimps and all of that, but it was Ben's Chili Bowl.

RAZ: It's rumored that Ben Ali never actually tried his famous half-smoke. He was a practicing Muslim who observed his faith's prohibition on eating pork. But at least once a month, up until the day he died, you could find Ben Ali standing behind the same lunch counter he made famous.

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