In addition to Ben’s Chili Bowl being a food staple in D.C., it’s also a part of Black culture and American history

The restaurant has been located on U Street, a historic area formerly known as “Black Broadway” when segregation was prominent in the region. It is a well-respected Black-owned business founded by the late Ben and his wife Virgina Ali on Aug. 22, 1958. The fresh homemade chili, half smokes and banana pudding they introduced to the D.C. community were an instant hit, and its praises quickly traveled to the masses.

“It was always going to be Ben’s Chili Bowl, which included chili. And half-smoke was really a breakfast sausage, but we thought it would be great on a hot dog bun — a nice steamed hot dog bun with mustard, onions and chili, and it turned out to be the number one seller, still is today. It’s the D.C. signature dish,” Virginia said in a 2023 interview with NBC4.

The Lifetime Legacy Award-winning eatery became a haven for Black Americans as they have donated food to campaigns like Poor People and the 1963 March on Washington, welcomed Martin Luther King Jr. and his team as they planned for the March on Washington, and was a place of refuge during the D.C. Riots, and more.

“Dr. King was spending a good bit of time in Washington in preparation for the march. So I got to sit with him a few times at Ben’s. He was making those plans along with A. Philip Randolph and sometimes John Lewis and also Bayard Rustin and a few of those leaders back in those days. Stokely Carmichael was in here every day in the spring of ’63,” Ali said in a recent interview with Washingtonian. “Dr. King always ordered the chili cheeseburger. That was his favorite. He was just a very calm, cool, self-confident, easy-to-be-around person. He was so passionate about what he was doing. Helping people — not just Black people, all people.”

“We were a gathering place. I think it probably had a lot to do with the food being good, number one, and number two, the hours accommodating everybody,” she added.

The restaurant also counts former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and celebrities like Harry Belafonte, Anthony Bourdain and Chris Tucker as customers.

“I really do enjoy people from all walks of life, and this place has provided me the privilege of doing that,” Virginia shared per the Washingtonian. “I’ve served presidents and judges and every profession you can name. But I’ve also served the heroin addicts, the crackheads and the bums. And if you treat every one of them the way you would like to be treated, you don’t have a problem.”

The pair went on to open a second location in 2008, a year before Ben passed in 2009. The entrepreneur continued to carry on her and her husband’s family legacy with the couple’s children. In 2023, the national treasure celebrated 65 years of business.

As a small business that has stood the test of time, Virginia is proud to be a neighborhood favorite and is excited for what’s to come.

“I’m just a happy old lady,” she told NBC4. “You know, in 65 years, I’ve experienced many challenges, many wonderful experiences. And now I’m ready for another wonderful experience.”