Bill Cosby, Virginia Ali, Mayor Gray say Happy 55th, Ben's Chili Bow
WASHINGTON (WUSA9) -- Ben's Chili Bowl opened up 55 years ago Thursday on U Street in the Shaw neighborhood, and it has been serving half smokes and chili dogs ever since.
Thursday morning, we were joined by the co-owner of Ben's Nizam Ali, who talked about the first day it opened and Thursday's celebration.
"We have been selling half smokes since the first day we opened. It was a breakfast spot back in the day, local to D.C. Mom and Dad decided 'hey, this is great. Let's put it in a bun, put mustard, onions and our homemade chili sauce' and the thing just took off," said Ali.
He took a guess at the reason behind the popularity.
"I think it has to do with so many things. It was our hours when we first opened. It was 11:00 in the morning 'til 2:00, 3:00 in the morning, weekends and weeknights. It was just the longevity. The first ten years where people really built those memories. If the half smoke wasn't great, if the chili wasn't great and the service and the family feel and how we have invested and always have in the community, I think it all makes a difference. And over time it kept rolling and rolling with the help of Bill Cosby and the president coming in, it's been magical," said Ali.
Ali told us about the success, "We're very humbled by it. We can't say it's us doing it. It's really been a community effort and D.C. effort and all the wonderful of people like yourself. WUSA has been a family for us for such a long time. You all do so much for us, really so many people that have made this place what it is."
Later Thursday morning among the crowd outside the restaurant, Ali reflected more on the early days, " I've been working here since I was old enough to wipe the tables down with a rag. I did all of that stuff."
Bill Cosby, Jesse Jackson, Mayor Gray, DC council members and members of all of the DC sports teams stopped by. "All of our local sports teams gave us jerseys that had alley and 55 on the back. It's a special day and such a warm feeling," shared Ali.
Ali also talked about the shared birthday with other D.C. icons. "Yes, it's Chuck Brown's birthday today and the anniversary of the Howard Theatre and Chili Bowl's anniversary all on one day. It's really special."
The iconic landmark has stood the test of time through segregation, before U Street and the country was integrated.
"We've been here for so long. we have been that kind of place. it's been amazing to be before that time period and still here today. it's been an incredible feeling," said Ali.
Ben's Chili Bowl served as a meeting place for people who wanted to march in the March on Washington.
Ali remembered, "My mom and dad donated food for the March on Washington so that makes us feel good. It's always been that meeting place, that place where people come through and they meet. So I remember vividly an example when there was ... a Black Panther party in the back. In the front, there were about 20 protesters. Only at Ben's could you have those two very different objectives but meeting at the same place."
Today, you can have the half smoked just like in 1958. "Bill Cosby always says consistency. That's it," said Ali.