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Ben’s Chili Bowl: As seen at the Grays on Pennsylvania
The intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Prout Street SE doesn’t have much to recommend it —- unless, that is, you’re in need of gas. There’s a Sunoco on the western side of Prout and a CITGO on the northeastern side of Pennsylvania. Cars, vans, and 18-wheelers rumble in both directions along the six-plus lanes that pass in front of the future site of the Grays on Pennsylvania, a mixed-use condo development that, at present, is just a giant hole in the ground at this intersection south of the Anacostia River.
If any condo’s in dire need of a selling point, it has to be the Grays on Pennsylvania, which may explain the massive sign that hangs from the construction site’s protective fencing. The billboard-sized sign features a lifelike rendering of the development, right down to the commercial stores on the ground floor. Front and center in that retail row is a familiar name, spelled out in that unmistakable red-cursive script that has lit up U Street for five decades now: Ben’s Chili Bowl.
Could a developer ask for a better spokes-business? Let’s all repeat the record together: The Shaw institution has survived the 1968 riots, a Metro expansion, several recessions, and Bill Cosby’s creeping senility to mark 50 years of slinging its signature half-smokes slathered in chili. Every politician, tourist, and Travel Channel producer who traipses through town, sooner or later, makes a pilgrimage to Ben’s, usually with camera in hand to try and capture the joint’s smoky, raucous charms for the folks back home. Even Obama paid his respects to the Bowl with a surprise visit before his inauguration in January, instantly turning a local landmark into an international icon.
No one may know what a Ben’s half-smoke is, but everybody now wants one, including the District’s developers who have been sniffing around the Ali family like a U.S. auto manufacturer looking for a government handout. They all ask the same thing of the Alis: Would you please, please, please open a Ben’s Chili Bowl in our condo?
Chapman Development, the company behind the Grays on Pennsylvania, was one such suitor. About six months ago, managing member Tim Chapman approached the Alis about his ground-floor space, which he thought would look oh-so-fine with a Ben’s Chili Bowl in it. The family investigated the future site, looked at Chapman’s renderings (including the one with Ben’s in it), and then said thanks but no thanks. The timing just wasn’t right for Ben’s, says Nizam Ali, son of founders Ben and Virginia Ali.
Chapman calls the still-hanging sign an honest mistake. He had more than one rendering of the Grays stored on a computer, he says, and his marketing person sent the wrong one to the printer. Over the phone, Chapman exudes the air of a man falsely accused of exploiting Ben’s good name, and he has promised Nizam Ali to quickly fix the sign. He makes no apologies, of course, for trying to lure Ben’s his way. “Are you kidding? It’d be Ben’s Chili Bowl east of the river!” he says. “I’d put a Ben’s Chili Bowl in my living room.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery