Nizam Ali – Owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl

The head of the half-smokes dishes on DC's finger-licking landmark

Ben’s Chili Bowl has been a family-owned landmark on U Street since 1958. In addition to providing its half-smoke offerings to the U Street set and baseball fans at Nationals Stadium, Ben’s opened its first new brick-and-mortar outpost in March in Arlington, Va and just opened up a brand new Reagan National Airport location in July.

We caught up with owner and local business champion Nizam Ali, whose parents founded the restaurant, to talk about bringing a taste of U Street across the river, what Ben’s Chili Bowl means to DC, and the eatery’s shipping policy.

First things first, what’s it like running a family-owned-and-operated restaurant that is synonymous with DC?

NA: It’s a responsibility. We’ve turned into ambassadors for our city. Every visitor that walks through our doors, we must give them a great experience – hopefully one that they’ll pass on to friends.

How has being part of DC lore helped Ben’s grow beyond U Street?

NA: With the Discovery Channel, Food Network, Travel Channel, there are so many different avenues that showcase Ben’s, but also DC, as a destination. Those TV programs go around the world and visitors say, “Hey, I want to go to DC.” I think that’s helped tremendously.

Of course the president coming here didn’t hurt either. To have Bill Cosby be your champion and a 55-year customer, and then to have then President-elect Obama come in just as he’s about to be inaugurated – we’ve been given so many wonderful gifts. It almost feels like we have a responsibility to do more with the original location we have and to grow and to provide more jobs, community service and be involved in more neighborhoods. We just hope we do it the right way and take it slow and keep true to the legacy and vision that Mom and Dad started and pay tribute to that as we move forward.

Ben’s Chili Bowl is also known for having a fiercely loyal staff. How did that come about?

NA: It’s all about how you treat people. We treat our employees like they’re members of our family. You know, employees typically call Mom “Ma” and ask her for advice or she advocates on their behalf. We hope people stay here as long as they like, but we also encourage people to leave us, to go off to school and do bigger and better things. And we really want the best for them.

Ben’s delivers half-smokes anywhere in the country, right? What’s one of the more memorable places where you’ve sent half-smokes?

NA: I thought it was pretty cool to send half-smokes – and love and joy – to Alaska.

What else is cool about Ben’s?

NA: It’s cool in that it’s that old, authentically cool place. Not a newer place that’s trying to be old, but that true, old place with an old spirit and really great food. I think the late-night part makes it cool. I don’t think we’re that special. Every city has a place like Ben’s. You know, it’s the cheesesteak places in Philly that are open late night. That’s where you go. You finish the movie, concert, club and you go to that place in the city. But it’s also the family experiences when they bring their kids into Ben’s, a place that’s unique to where I’m going.

If you had a visitor in town, what would you tell them to order at Ben’s?

NA: It’s got to be the chili half-smoke. That’s the only thing Bill Cosby has been eating for 50-plus years, that’s what Obama had, that’s what President Sarkozy of France had. And that’s our thing. It’s unique to DC and the region. It’s a regional food and has been voted DC’s signature dish. When in Maryland you’ve got to get some crabs, when you’re in DC, you’ve got to get a half-smoke.