The new Ben’s Chili Bowl mural is going up, and it’s full of luminaries

WASHINGTON — For nearly six months, the brick wall outside D.C. landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl was blank.

That has changed now.

A new Ben’s Chili Bowl mural titled “The Torch” features a portrait of Harriet Tubman, the former slave turned conductor on the Underground Railroad. She holds a lamp above her head, looking off in the distance.

And a satellite of notables — famous and not-as-familiar to some — stretch along the wall just off U Street on Ben Ali Way.

Local artist Aniekan Udofia is painting the mural. Its new faces were chosen as part of a massive poll that got 30,000 respondents. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Local artist Aniekan Udofia is painting the mural. Its new faces were chosen as part of a massive poll that got 30,000 respondents. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

From left: Muhammad Ali, Prince, Harriet Tubman and the Obamas are among the new faces on the mural. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
From left: Muhammad Ali, Prince, Harriet Tubman and the Obamas are among the new faces on the mural.
(WTOP/Kate Ryan)

Comedians Dick Gregory (left) and Dave Chappelle are also among the new faces in the Ben's Chili Bowl mural. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Dick Gregory (left) and Dave Chappelle are also among the new faces on the Ben’s Chili Bowl mural. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

From left: Russ Parr, Donnie Simpson and Chuck Brown are among the new faces on the Ben's Chili Bowl mural (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
From left: Russ Parr, Donnie Simpson and Chuck Brown are also featured in the new Ben’s Chili Bowl mural. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

Local faces will also go on the wall, including that of the late D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Among the local faces is that of late D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

A new mural titled "The Torch" features a portrait of Harriet Tubman and other notables (both famous and not-as-familiar) along the wall just off U Street.
Ben’s is beloved by longtime Washingtonians who treasure not only the good, cheap eats, but also the fact that the family-owned business remained rooted on U Street through challenging times. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

Virginia Ali, who with her late husband started the restaurant in August of 1958, is still there, wiping down tabletops, checking to see if your Half-Smoke is to your liking, and making sure you got your drink order. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Virginia Ali, who with her late husband started the restaurant in August of 1958, is still there, wiping down tabletops, checking to see if your Half-Smoke is to your liking, and making sure you got your drink order. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

Angela Powell makes sure the dogs are just right at Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Angela Powell makes sure the dogs are just right at Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

Angela Powell delivers service with a smile at Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Angela Powell delivers service with a smile at Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

Ben's is beloved by longtime Washingtonians who treasure not only the good, cheap eats, but also the fact that the family-owned business remained rooted on U Street through challenging times. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Ben’s is beloved by longtime Washingtonians who treasure not only the good, cheap eats, but also the fact that the family-owned business remained rooted on U Street through challenging times. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama are featured in the new Ben's Chili Bowl mural. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama are featured in the new Ben’s Chili Bowl mural. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

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Local artist Aniekan Udofia is painting the mural. Its new faces were chosen as part of a massive poll that got 30,000 respondents. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
From left: Muhammad Ali, Prince, Harriet Tubman and the Obamas are among the new faces on the mural. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Comedians Dick Gregory (left) and Dave Chappelle are also among the new faces in the Ben's Chili Bowl mural. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
From left: Russ Parr, Donnie Simpson and Chuck Brown are among the new faces on the Ben's Chili Bowl mural (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Local faces will also go on the wall, including that of the late D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
A new mural titled "The Torch" features a portrait of Harriet Tubman and other notables (both famous and not-as-familiar) along the wall just off U Street.
Virginia Ali, who with her late husband started the restaurant in August of 1958, is still there, wiping down tabletops, checking to see if your Half-Smoke is to your liking, and making sure you got your drink order. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Angela Powell makes sure the dogs are just right at Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Angela Powell delivers service with a smile at Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Ben's is beloved by longtime Washingtonians who treasure not only the good, cheap eats, but also the fact that the family-owned business remained rooted on U Street through challenging times. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama are featured in the new Ben's Chili Bowl mural. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

The mural that used to be there featured the likeness of now-embattled comedian Bill Cosby, whose love of Ben’s Half-Smokes and support of the restaurant, which weathered the riots of the late 1960s, earned Cosby free eats whenever he visited the District of Columbia.

Today, as Sonya Ali, who does the hiring at the family-owned restaurant, talks about the mural, there’s no mention of Cosby’s legal troubles and the allegations of sexual assault that landed him in court.

Instead, Ali said, “We decided after five years and a lot of weather it was time to refresh the mural.”

Local artist Aniekan Udofia is painting the mural. Its new faces were chosen as part of a massive poll that got 30,000 respondents.

In addition to Tubman, mural honorees include Muhammad Ali and Prince as well as Barack and Michelle Obama. Local faces will also go on the wall: Marion Barry, go-go pioneer Chuck Brown, comic Dave Chappelle and NBC Washington’s Jim Vance, a fixture in local news for decades.

Ben’s is beloved by longtime Washingtonians who treasure not only the good, cheap eats (their slogan claims “Our chili will make your hot dogs bark”), but also the fact that the family-owned business remained rooted on U Street through challenging times.

Ben’s has been a constant — from the era when segregation created black-owned businesses serving those barred from other downtown businesses, through the unrest of the 60s, the lean times of the 70s, and the disruptive construction of the Metro line now serving U Street.

Virginia Ali, who with her late husband started the restaurant in August of 1958, is still there, wiping down tabletops, checking to see if your Half-Smoke is to your liking, and making sure you got your drink order.

Virginia, who has a warm, yet dignified bearing, welcomes everybody. “I’ve nothing but good things to say about my experience here in Washington. Some of it was very difficult. But people treat you the way you treat them,” she said with a smile.

She is excited about the new mural, and said visitors are welcome to take all the selfies they want outside. But she reminds them to come inside “for a delicious sandwich, a good old chili Half-Smoke or chili dog, or a burger.

“I like them, I still eat them,” she said with a laugh.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.


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