Today is the national holiday marking the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King gave his most famous speech in Washington D.C.
It wasn’t his home city, but he spent a fair amount of time in the nation’s capital during his career.
And when he was in D.C. and when he was hungry, he often stopped at 1213 U St. N.W., known nationwide as Ben’s Chili Bowl.
The landmark restaurant first opened in 1958, a time when U Street in Washington was known as Black Broadway.
Ben and Virginia Ali opened their place on the site of what had been the first silent movie house in the city.
And it wasn’t long before their food was attracting celebrities like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.
And Dr. King was there too; Virginia Ali says his Washington D.C. office was just a few blocks away, so whenever he was in town, he came into the restaurant.
She also said that she and her husband had stopped by the National Mall during the March on Washington, but headed back to the Chili Bowl when they realized that some of the thousands and thousands of people on hand would be hungry when the March was over.
After Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, Washington D.C. was one of many cities that saw riots, violence and massive property damage.
Civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael had asked the Alis to keep Ben’s Chili Bowl open during the unrest.
Ben Ali had to write “Soul Brother” on the front window as a way to keep rioters from destroying their building, but it worked: they served protesters, first responders, and more, at a time when much of the surrounding neighborhood was destroyed.
The Alis believed that it was important where people could meet, talk, listen and, of course, sit down together to eat.
They have kept the restaurant going even when parts of the neighborhood was in ruins, even as the area saw spikes of drug addiction and crime, even after Ben Ali’s passing in 2005, and during the toughest parts of the pandemic.
Virginia Ali and her children now have two restaurants, plus three more outlets in the DC area and online orders that can come in from all over.
And while the original Ben in Ben’s Chili Bowl is with them in spirit, there is still a Ben involved – several, in fact.
Ben and Virginia gave their sons the middle name Ben so they could keep the name involved in the restaurant to this day.