By Ezra Klein
The IFA was remiss yesterday in not acknowledging the passing of 82-year-old Ben Ali, the Trinidadian-immigrant and former dentistry student who opened Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958.
Obituaries shouldn’t lie: I think the food at Ben’s verges on horrible. And yes, I’ve had the chili half-smoke. But Ben’s has been something more than a great restaurant: it’s been a great institution. A fixture in a community that needed the vote of confidence. The restaurant stayed open through the 1968 riots, when it served both the protesters and the police officers sent to quell their fury. It stayed open through the neighborhood’s deterioration in the 70s and 80s, ceasing to sell cakes and pies because drug addicts were drawn to the sweets. In stayed open when U Street was ripped up for the construction of the green line, and then became a central feature of the revitalized corridor.
I don’t like the food at Ben’s Chili Bowl. I haven’t eaten there in years. But I’d give up almost every restaurant in the District before letting them leave. DC could use more great food, but what it could really use is more confidence in its own character, and more places that the whole city knows and feels ownership of. Luckily, Ben Ali made arrangements to ensure continuity: each of his three sons was given the middle name “Ben,” in case they wanted to take over the restaurant. Two of them did so, and Ben — and Ben’s — lives on.
(Picture via So Good Blog.)