City Desk

Ben Ali Created a Political Mecca

LL reached a rather distraught Marshall Brown moments ago.

Brown (along with fellow politico and ex-Barry aide Bernard Demczuk) is first among local politickers as a denizen of Ben's Chili Bowl, and as a friend of its proprietor, Ben Ali, who died today at 82. He remembers his longtime friend with this line: "He came here ansd he wanted to do three things: He wanted to have a family, which he did; he wanted to have business, and he did; and he wanted to help somebody, which he did."

Ali, he says, "helped the entire community in any way...whether your church needed anything or your school needed a playground or you just needed a place to meet, you could count on Ben." And, he says, Ali made his restaurant a sort of sacred space for local officials and operatives looking to do a little business, have a quick bite, or make a big splash.

"You had to have a place to meet, have to have a place to sit down and invite people to. So it was Ben's Chili Bowl," Brown says. "Everybody from from Loose Lips to whoever, everyone's had to be there one way or another. It had black people, it had white people, it had old people, it had rich people, it had young people. It had gays, it had straights. It had upper class, middle class, no class. They all came."

The litany of politicos that Ali welcomed into his restaurant is legion: "Tony Williams, that was his very first stop after winning, the very first place he went to have a press conference was Ben's Chili Bowl. Charlene Drew Jarvis had to go through there; Dave Clarke had to go through there; Jim Graham had to go through there; Marion Barry, he lived there! I could go on and on and on."

Famously, of course, Barack Obama made an impromptu stop at Ben's in January with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, shortly after arriving in town for his inauguration.

But for all the politicking going on inside, the restaurant itself has never been a political establishment. Brown believes that the only tiume he saw Ali allow a political sign inside the place was when his son, Kwame Brown, ran for D.C. Council. "They just don't do it," he says.

(Kwame Brown just released a statement calling Ali a "wonderful family friend and true inspiration," not to mention "a civil rights pioneer and the embodiment of entrepreneurial spirit.")

The true testament to Ali, Marshall Brown says, is that "everybody was welcome....My enemies! Sometimes I'd be sitting next to them, having a damn chili dog! They were there at Chili Bowl."

UPDATE, 1:15 P.M.: D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray has a statement of his own, calling Ali "a well-respected and iconic figure in the shaping of the historic U Street corridor." He ends with a brag: "I am a regular patron."

UPDATE, 6:30 P.M.: An addendum from another operator, consultant Chuck Thies: "Funny, I always felt welcome at Ben's EXCEPT when Marshall Brown was there....In 2006 David Bowers held his At-Large Council campaign kick-off at Ben's, Marshall Brown was there running the show. Brown saw me, took a bee-line across the room and said, 'What are you doing here, this is my house. Get out of here right now. Back in the day I could have you fucked up.'"

Thies adds a disclaimer: "I don't want to come off looking anti-Ben's," just anti-Marshall.

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  • Peter Rosenstein

    Ben Ali's family must be proud of all Ben did. He opened not only an iconic restaurant, but he stayed and fought for DC during the hard years. He was a rock in a neighborhood that saw huge transitions.

    My thoughts are with his family and friends today.

  • The Donkey

    Peter, would you please just shut up! Your thoughts are with attaching yourself to the legacy of Ben Ali so you can somehow work that to an advantage. Why don't you go entertain the march revelers with your Linda Blair impersonation. That always draws attention.

  • Regular customer

    Ben's is/was the only genuine neutral ground in DC. All are welcome. All are fed. The service may take a while, but the food is down home and genuine. When I'm away from DC, I can only imagine the taste of a chili half smoke with mustard and onions. And I often do.

    RIP Ben. And thanks for all you did for our town. I'll have one with fries and a diet coke in your memory, sir.

  • Pingback: The Death of Ben Ali: What Others Had to Say - Young & Hungry - Washington City Paper

  • Truth Hurts

    Well said, Regular customer. Genuine neutral ground is so hard to find.