City Paper is not for tourists
A word of advice to businesses around town: If you want a fluff piece from the Washington Post, throw an anniversary party for yourself.
For proof, just look at Ben’s Chili Bowl, that mainstay/institution/staple of Washington, D.C., on the historic U Street corridor.
The popular greasy spoon was founded in 1958. Which means that in 2003, Ben’s had been around for 45 years. Cause for celebration: The biz threw a party, and the Post responded with a showcase piece on all the fanfare.
Five years later, of course, Ben’s hit its 50th anniversary. The biz is throwing a party, and the Post responded with a showcase piece on all the fanfare.
The articles bear some things in common: They were both splashed huge on the front of the Metro section; they both ran on August 21; and they both spread the common wisdom about Ben’s (historic eatery, great food, loyal clientele, famous people go there, slice of real D.C., community, blah).
At this point, any self-respecting alt-weekly blog writer would spout off about how pathetic this all is, how all the fuss over Ben’s just highlights how starved D.C. is for authenticity on all levels, how lame the Post is for not checking its own archives, and so on.
But let’s not take that route in this instance. It’s Olympics time, after all, and all that matters at this point is who’s better. And so, let’s vote on which version of the Ben’s Chili Bowl anniversary story was the better one. Instead of forcing City Desk readers to slog through both pieces, though, we’ll abridge them for you, category by predictable category.
The race for the gold starts after the jump.
2003 (by staff writer Debbi Wilgoren)
There seemed to be no empty buildings along U Street back in 1958, when Ben and Virginia Ali first started serving chili dogs and chili burgers at their red-and-white storefront next door to the Lincoln Theatre in Northwest Washing-ton.
2008 (by staff writer Keith L. Alexander)
It was 1996, and Nizam Ali had just gotten his law degree. Instead of heading to the courtroom, he had another idea: He wanted to help run the family business.
The Rough Years
The bustling storefronts became scarred shells — some abandoned when inte-gration opened up opportunities elsewhere, others shuttered when riots and crime descended on the street after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Later, scores of buildings were bulldozed to make way for the construction of Metro’s Green Line, and workers tore up stretches of U Street, keeping out many of those still willing to walk past the drug dealers.
For a restaurant to become such a landmark in the District is rare, and at times, it seemed that Ben’s wouldn’t survive. In 1968, many businesses were torched during the riots after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Stokely Carmichael Reference
Stokely Carmichael, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, used the restaurant as an outreach center, and a place where his activists could get something to eat.
But Ben’s remained opened and untouched, thanks largely to Stokely Carmichael, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which used the restaurant as a meeting place.
Diner’s Owners Meet and Marry
She had met Ben Ali, an immigrant from Trinidad who had dropped out of dental school at Howard University, while she was working as a teller at the Industrial Bank of Washington, at 11th and U.
Ben Ali, an immigrant from Trinidad, met his wife when she was a teller at nearby Industrial Bank. When Ali opened the restaurant, Virginia joined him in the venture. They were married that October.
A Nod to Nostalgia
But mostly, U Street and Ben’s Chili Bowl were filled with black Washingtonians. The atmosphere, Virginia Ali recalled, was like a never-ending family reun-ion. She couldn’t run down the block to the drugstore or to the bank to make a deposit without being stopped by someone she knew.
For about 40 years, most of Ben’s clients were African Americans, who patronized the U Street corridor for decades. In the late 1950s, U Street was known as the “Black Broadway,” thanks to frequent performances by such stars as Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
The restaurant has the same 1950s feel it has always had, although the sodas come in plastic cups. The dessert cases are back but no longer sit on the counter, and the jukebox features CDs.
Ben’s is like a popular barbershop or beauty salon where regulars gather to gossip, laugh and joke. “It’s very much like that, where a janitor sits next to a judge, who is sitting next to a junkie. Just random people having random conversations,” Nizam Ali said.
The Chili Bowl’s Changing Crowds
The clientele at Ben’s is eclectic and unpredictable — black and white, young and old, yuppie and working-class. The construction crews show up for breakfast. The club crowd comes in after midnight.
The morning crowd is dressed in business suits and uniforms, men and women sipping coffee and eating cheese grits or toast before heading to work. At lunch, it’s mostly workers or tourists jamming the booths and tables. The dinner crowd is made up of folks who want a quick burger.
A half-smoke (a plump pork-and-beef sausage) went for 20 cents in the early days. A hot dog cost 15 cents. The sodas were O-So brand, orange or grape, served in the bottle. Despite the restaurant’s name, when it opened Aug. 22, 1958, Ben’s spicy chili was served only atop hot dogs, half-smokes or hamburg-ers.
Bernadette “Peaches” Halton, 48, a 30-year employee, …is said to be the only one outside the family to know the recipe for Ben’s chili.
De Rigueur Quote from Regular
“This was black folks’ Main Street,” said Butch Snipes, 68, a lifelong neighborhood resident. “This was where everything happened.”
“You can describe it the same way a wine connoisseur would be able to tell difference between a pinot noir and a merlot,” [Bill] Cosby said in a telephone interview. “When you bite into a half-smoke, the skin and the way the texture and firmness and the toppings you can get on it . . . “
His voice trailed off, as if he was caught in the memory of the taste.