By Tanzi West Barbour
There have always been staples in the Black community that are used to bring us together – church, basement parties, impromptu meetings on the front porch, etc. Perhaps the most consistent staple of them all that never ceased to ensure comradery or create a spirit of warmth and comfort, is food. Not just any food, but good, soul-finding, down-home meals that are cooked in so much butter, fat, and grease that you automatically check your current fad diet or “cleanse” at the door because you know “good eatins” await you.
Good soul food has the ability to bring together strangers, create bonds between enemies, and squash any beefs that may have existed before the breaking of the bread. Soul food is just that powerful.
If you’re lucky, sometimes the good food is paired with excellent company and a celebration of some sort.
That’s what happened on the iconic U Street in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, August 22 when people crowded in the area in front of the legendary Ben’s Chili Bowl in celebration of the restaurant’s 60th year in business. Owners Mr. and Mrs. Ben and Virginia Ali opened Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958 and have weathered many of the battles D.C. has been a part of, including the 1968 riots.
With the city burning down around them, the Ali’s felt it was their duty to remain open to help feed the Black activists, first responders, and community organizers who were trying to bring a calmness and restoration back to the city. It was the meeting place where everyone knew they would be safe and well-fed.
Ben’s remained intact doing what it does best – bringing together people from all walks of life, serving up good food, and creating a space for creativity, planning, and enlightenment. It was, after all, the place where Reverend Jesse Jackson planned his run for President and Marion Barry strategized his political campaign. It’s where the organizers for the March on Washington met and planned and where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stopped by for a quick bite to eat. It’s where President Barack Obama dined and countless other Black heroes and sheroes stopped in for a burger or a hot dog.
For me, it’s the place that my mother took me when I was a little girl explaining the history and significance of the dining institution in our Chocolate City and how much it meant to her because as a native Washingtonian this place was a part of her childhood and it was going to become a part of mine.
It was the place where my two children met and dined with NBA Champion, Kevin Durant. It’s where I introduced my husband to 3am half smokes and chili-cheese fries. It’s where racial identities are checked at the door and everyone wants to know your name. It’s where a line wrapped around the building and down the alley is a common occurrence. It’s a place where you can still find Virginia Ali taking orders and serving food at 84 years old. It’s a place that you can call home.
Celebrating 60 years in business as a staple in the Black community is not something that is accomplished by just anyone. Ben’s Chili Bowl isn’t just a restaurant. It never has been. It’s a place that allows you to be you – no inhibitions, no explanations needed. It’s a place where you could ask a celebrity to pass you the ketchup and they would do it – no questions asked.
It’s a culture. It’s a D.C. thing and thankfully, people understand.