For Some, Ben Ali Served More Than Half-Smokes

Founder’s Death Hits Hard at Ben’s Chili Bowl

Ben Ali, 82, was like a father to Jimmy Hughes, 61. Nine years ago, Hughes said he could be found drunk on U Street. After getting drunk, he would walk over to Ben’s Chili Bowl for a chili dog.

Hughes didn’t have his life together. It was Ali, who died Monday night, and his wife, Virginia, who helped him get back on his feet. For the past nine years, Hughes has been an employee at Ben’s.

“Ben helped me and helped a lot of other people,” Hughes said while standing outside the restaurant. “You better believe he will be deeply missed.”

Hughes said Ali’s death has hit the Ben’s Chili Bowl family hard and in honor of his legacy business must go on.

“His legacy will continue to live,” Hughes said. “He has great sons who will keep this thing going.”

According to the Ben’s Chili Bowl Web site, Ali died at home peacefully with his wife by his side.

Stanley Reidy, 53, who was sitting in Ben’s eating a half-smoke, had not heard the news of Ali’s death. When he found out, he was shocked.

Although in recent years Ali was not seen at Ben’s frequently, Reidy recalled seeing him pop in and out of the restaurant on occasion.

“I didn’t know him personally, but what I do know is that Ben and this restaurant have been a great asset to this community,” Reidy said.

Ben’s has been on U Street since 1958. Although it is small, it packs a big punch. Fifty-one years ago, Ali and his wife opened their “hole in the wall” and 51 years later a lot about Ben’s remains the same. The restaurant is in the same spot, and it serves the same chili.

“I’ve been coming here since I was a little boy,” James Witherspoon said.

Now 54, Witherspoon remembers when he was old enough to go down to Ben’s with the little bit of change he had to buy a half-smoke with mustard, relish and onion.

“This place is monumental and so is Ali,” Witherspoon said. “I will remember him as just another guy from the neighborhood doing his best to make a difference.”