How DC landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl is responding to the pandemic

Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street is seen on April 4, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

Amid the coronavirus pandemic that has gripped the D.C. region, local landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl is fighting through it and adapting.

“In the past, whenever there was a disaster or need, Ben’s was always a place they turned to for support or making sure that people were taken care of and fed,” Vida Ali told WTOP.

“In continuing in that spirit, which we have for 60 years, we have been donating lunches for the heroes … through the hospitals and the police and EMTs, and also giving back to the community.”

Ben’s Chili Bowl has been a D.C. staple since 1958. It has survived dark times, such as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1968 riots.

“The mayor did have to bring in a curfew, and Ben’s Chili Bowl was the only place that was allowed to remain open,” Virginia Ali told WTOP.

Now, the coronavirus pandemic has closed all of their locations other than U Street.

It’s been more than a financial hit — it’s an emotional one as well.

The counter at Ben’s Chili Bowl is ready to go out to those who need it. (WTOP/Melissa Howell)

“People are used to us being that community place where people could come and feel comforted,” said Vida Ali. “We’ve turned to curbside (pickups). We’ve turned to online orders.”

“My husband and I wanted to start a little restaurant. And we certainly needed to find an ideal location. And, back in those days, the U Street area was a very segregated community,” said Virginia Ali.

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“U Street itself was known as Black Broadway. It was our entertainment center. So, if we could find a place on U Street, that would just simply be ideal,” she said.

They did, and they’ve thrived ever since.

Today, they’re feeding first responders.

Ben’s Chili Bowl deliveries are headed out. (WTOP/Melissa Howell)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said Wednesday that “Ben’s Chili Bowl is the type of business that should be helped” by federal small business loans.

She said that Congress would vote in the next day or two on a renewal of the program.

In the meantime, here are other ways to support Ben’s Chili Bowl:

“I just want to say thank you to our community and our guests and our city for the support that we’ve been given,” said Virginia Ali. “And we continue to welcome you and serve you as best we can in this very difficult time.”

Melissa Howell

Melissa Howell joined WTOP Radio in March 2018 and is excited to cover stories that matter across D.C., as well as in Maryland and Virginia. 

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Writer/Editor for He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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