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Ben's Chili Bowl records

Identifier: MS2285

Scope and Contents

This collection contains business records, correspondence, historical documents, financial records, photographs, clippings, and websites. The material dates from 1943-2023. These are the records of the Ali family chronicling the establishment and maintaining of the Ben's Chili Bowl restaurant.


  • Creation: 1943-2023

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Some material may be copyrighted or restricted. It is the patron's obligation to determine and satisfy copyright or other case restrictions when publishing or otherwise distributing materials found in the collections.

Biographical / Historical

Ben's Chili Bowl was founded on August 22, 1958, by Ben Ali, a Trinidadian-born immigrant and his fiancee, Virginia Rollins. The building they chose was that of Washington's first silent movie house, the Minnehaha. The building is a contributing property to the Greater U Street Historic District. At the time, Washington was officially segregated, and U Street was known as "Black Broadway".

The U Street corridor was devastated by the 1968 civil unrest that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. During the civil unrest, black activist Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, asked Ben to keep his restaurant open and the Alis obtained permission to stay open past curfew. The restaurant fed both the police officers and firemen working to impose order on the neighborhood, as well as the black activists.

The destruction of so many businesses led to the flight of residents towards the suburbs and the economic decline of the neighborhood through the mid-1970s to mid-1980s. The vast construction of the U Street/Cardozo Metro Station across the street from the restaurant, completed in 1991, forced still more U Street businesses to close, but Ben's Chili Bowl stayed open to feed the construction workers.

In 2008, Ben's Chili Bowl opened a second location in the newly built Nationals Park. On October 7, 2009, Ben died at the age of 82. He and his wife, Virginia, had retired from the restaurant business, having passed daily operations of Ben's Chili Bowl to their sons, Kamal and Nizam.


6 Linear Feet

Language of Materials



This collection consists of records relating to the Washington, D.C. restaurant Ben's Chili Bowl dating from 1943-2023.


Organized into 6 series: Historical records, Business records, Community outreach, Photographs, Publicity/Press, and Websites (captured using the Internet Archive's Archive-it service in 2023 and then once a year after that).

Physical Location

Materials are stored off-site, and may require additional retrieval time. Please contact the Special Collections Research Center for more information.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of the Ali family, 2010, 2014 (2010.033, 2010.043, 2014.030)


In 2020 Sonali Mirpuri donated a digital copy of her Georgetown Honors Thesis titled Mahaboob Ben Ali and His Chili Bowl: A Story of Family and Identity in the U Street Corridor


Guide to the Ben's Chili Bowl records, 1943-2018
Special Collections Research Center, The George Washington University
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Research Center, The George Washington University Repository

George Washington University Gelman Library
2130 H Street NW
Washington DC 20052 United States of America