A special kind of block party took over U Street in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 22 as the iconic Ben's Chili Bowl celebrated its 65th anniversary.
"The way that they run their business is an inspiration to us at the Commanders," Washington's team president Jason Wright said to the restaurant's founding Ali family on stage at the party. "It encourages us to do better, to be better, to be representative of the community in the way that you have, and I want to thank you for your example and your representation of all of us."
The Commanders joined other DMV-based sports teams along with local celebrities, politicians and thousands of other residents in gathering to honor the restaurant that, over the last six decades, has become a meaningful institution and landmark. The block party was a testament to how a well-run business that sticks to community values can make a profound impact, a concept that the Commanders are constantly working towards.
The now larger-than-life Ben's Chili Bowl started off as a dream of Ben Ali over 50 years ago. He shared that dream with a woman he fell in love with named Virginia, and after getting married, they decided to take the leap and opened the restaurant on U Street. From Day 1, they served the menu items that patrons flock to today, including chili, burgers and their famous half-smokes.
Soon, the business blossomed into a space that Wright described as a "hub, a sanctuary and a brain trust." Martin Luther King Jr. had conversations with Virginia Ali during his regular visits to Ben's Chili Bowl while planning his March on Washington. In 2009, President Barack Obama ate at the restaurant. Over the decades, Ben's Chili Bowl has served millions, been damaged and repaired, witnessed protests outside its doors and moved through the many changes felt by a growing nation's capital.
Wright used the acronym R.A.C.E. to describe the spirit, influence and journey of Ben's over the last 65 years. The business has demonstrated resilience (R) in moving through civil unrest, economic downturns and a pandemic. It always shows up authentically (A) in the food it serves, the music it plays and in being "unapologetically Black." Ben's Chili Bowl's commitment (C) has been to stick with its city when other people abandoned the neighborhood. Finally, Ben's Chili Bowl has been all about excellence (E).
"It's really good food," Wright said with a smile. "There's a reason people started coming here in the first place."
No matter the situation, Ben's Chili Bowl has stood as a constant and a must-go-to place for those who flow through D.C. Washington Legend Doug Williams remembers hearing about Ben's not long after moving to the DMV area in 1986. Then, when he first ate there, and now over 30 years on celebrating its birthday, Williams emphasized that the restaurant is focused, above all, on the community it serves.
"When I first got here as a Redskins and transitioned into a Commander, it was about community, and that's what Ben's has always been about," Williams said at the party on Tuesday. "They [patrons] don't come here just for the food, they come here because they know this is the place to be."
The way the community turned up for Ben's Chili Bowl on Tuesday showed just how much it has appreciated the restaurant's long-standing and intentional presence. As a birthday gift, the Commanders gave the Ali family a signed Doug Williams jersey and a custom-made helmet by artist Cierra Lynn that incorporated design elements such as Ben's menu items, musical notes (to represent Go-go music), the Commanders logo and the D.C. flag.
From the food to the business, Ben's Chili Bowl has set a standard that all those who call the DMV home can look to and learn from.
"There's a scripture that says, 'run the race with perseverance set before you,' and that inspired me as I thought about what [Ben's had] done over 65 years," Wright said.