Virginia Ali: The ‘heart and soul’ of Ben’s Chili Bowl

Virginia, dressed in pink, blends in with her employees behind the counter as she checks on the restaurant and welcomes customers to Ben's Chili Bowl.
The window at the front of the restaurant was considered very modern when Ben's first opened on U Street in 1958.
Inside Ben's, customers eat at the same countertop the restaurant originally had when it opened in 1958.
The menu at Ben's features their famous chili dogs and half-smokes, along with other options for breakfast.
A photo of Ben Ali, Virginia's husband, hangs high on the back wall in remembrance of the restaurant's founder.
A photo hanging in the restaurant shows Virginia Ali posing with Bill Cosby after presenting him with an award.
A mirror reflects customers who sit at the table marked by a plaque where President Barack Obama ate in 2009, nearly two months after being elected.
The restaurant has been located in the same place on U Street since it opened.
Crowds of people flock to Ben's for lunch in October.
Ben's is located next to the Lincoln Theatre on U Street.
Virginia Ali, dressed in pink, navigates the area behind the counter as restaurant employees prepare to switch from the breakfast crew to the lunch crew.

Heather Brady,

WASHINGTON – The story of Ben’s Chili Bowl begins partly with its namesake, Mahaboob Ben Ali, a Trinidadian native who immigrated to the United States and opened the eatery after graduating from Howard University.

But the D.C. institution’s past is also closely woven into the life of Virginia Ali, Ben’s wife, who still helps run the restaurant with her children.

Raised near Tappahannock, Va., she was working at a bank in the D.C. area when a mutual friend introduced her to Ben. As the couple began talking about marriage, the idea of a restaurant surfaced.

Ben didn’t intend to become a businessman, but his dream of a career in dentistry disappeared when he injured his back falling down an elevator shaft. After a long recovery, he could not continue attending Howard University’s School of Dentistry, where he was working toward a degree. Instead, he returned to the job he used to put himself through school in the first place — restaurant work.

As Virginia says, there was no question where to start the business.

“U Street would have been the only place to really open up a restaurant because this was the hub of the African-American community,” Virginia says.

One morning in late October, the 78-year-old sat at a small table pushed up against a wall near the back of Ben’s Next Door, a restaurant the Alis opened next to Ben’s, as she began to tell the restaurant’s story.

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