Only five people eat for free at Ben’s Chili Bowl: the four members of the Obama family and Bill Cosby.
So it was only appropriate that Cosby, a longtime Ben’s advocate and half-smoke fanatic, joined co-founder Virginia Ali and her family to ring in Ben’s 55th anniversary today.
Cosby was joined by Mayor Vince Gray, Councilmember Marion Barry, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Slapshot, the Washington Capitals’ Eagle. President Barack Obama was present in the form of a letter read by a representative of the Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation.
More than 20 people spoke—including many lifelong Ben’s customers and employees—and shared stories about co-founder Ben Ali, who died in 2009, his wife Virginia, and their sons Kamal, Nizam, and Sage. They also described the changing U Street NW neighborhood—and griped about the rising price of a half-smoke.
Cosby moderated the event and stood behind each speaker, clasping shoulders and proudly announcing to the crowd how long each one had been part of the Ben’s family. The legendary TV dad poked fun at each of the speakers as they addressed the crowd. (He teased speaker Brian Summers from the Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation for being a Republican. “I told you Ben’s is bipartisan!” Summers quipped back.)
Jackson led the crowd in a chant to part of the poem “I Am – Somebody,” and Gray called Ben’s “the anchor of U Street” and said he visits the restaurant at least once or twice a week for a half-smoke.
After the speeches, the crowds packed into Ben’s to order and to catch a glimpse of Cosby before he left. Cosby has been a Ben’s customer since its 1958 opening and is an old friend of the Ali family. If you call Ben’s and get placed on hold, Cosby’s voice speaks to you until someone can get to the phone.
Ben and Virginia Ali opened Ben’s Chili Bowl on Aug. 22, 1958. The restaurant witnessed the 1968 riots, the construction of the U Street Metro, and even served as a meeting place for Rev. Martin Luther King and some leaders of the March on Washington.
Virginia Ali recalls feeding some of the buses of people who came into D.C. to march in 1963. “I remember people coming into the Chili Bowl, having something to eat before going to the march,” she says. “I remember the enthusiasm of many people about going down there to march for equal rights and jobs.”
Jacqui Collins, a friend of Virginia’s and a Ben’s Chili Bowl customer for about 50 years, used to go there as a teenager after visiting one of the theatres on U Street. “You never went home without stopping at Ben’s,” she says. She still goes today and notes she can never leave the store without spending $50 or $60 dollars picking up food for her friends.
Cosby ended the event by leading a standing ovation for the Ali family, capping off speeches full of stories of how the Alis helped shape the U Street community. Speakers recalled how Virginia would send food every day to the house of an elderly woman and how she would talk teenagers into staying out of trouble.
“A woman doesn’t lift weights, but she can look at you and turn you into a human being with some sense,” Cosby said of Virginia. “Ben’s Chili Bowl—not only a place to come and visit, meet your friends, but a place of humanity. That’s what that philosophy has always been about.”
Photo by Ally Mutnick