Ben’s Chili Bowl: Serving Chili and Disconnecting From History
While the website for the historic Ben’s Chili Bowl showcases the restaurant’s adaptation to the new technological times, it fails to reflect a sense of the past in the present and show Ben’s ties to the U Street community. A simplistic design allows the owners to communicate their love of food and tradition while creating a visual time capsule that holds great memories that the restaurant has experienced. On the other hand, as a pinnacle of the black community, the lack of specific history hinders visitors from understanding why it is more than just another fast food restaurant.
The front page of the website greets you with two huge rotating pictures specifically of Ben’s famous chili and a graphic advertising their 58th anniversary photo contest; surprisingly, of five smiling customers taking a selfie with the logo, there is one woman of color to four whites, which is odd considering the ties that restaurant has to the black community. To an outsider who lacks the knowledge of Ben’s history, the front page seems like any old restaurant that is attempting to draw people in with its ‘famous’ foods and attempts at diversity. There is a great lack of information, unless you dive deeper into the tabs on top. Though, the front page does feature addresses for four of the chili bowls that are located around D.C., including the original location on U Street, which does hint at its regional popularity and ability to expand.
Formally known as “Black Broadway”, U Street has been home to Ben’s since 1958; we learn the latter from the ‘About Us’ page but have to search for Ben’s place in black history within other sources (Witchel). Articles from publishments such as The New York Times and PBS illustrate Ben and Virginia Ali’s dedication to their business despite the rocky path U Street has sent them down (Carufel). Details are spared on the ‘About’ page, and, instead, the simple mentions of surviving the race riots of the 60s and welcoming President Obama before his inauguration serve as its history. As an attempt to showcase how its intentions have not changed, the page spends a paragraph on how they have kept its original interior (counter, booths, and stools) and its signature dishes.
Lacking the proper oral history, Ben’s website attempts to create a visual look back on many of its highlights on its ‘Photos’ page. Users can jump from various perspectives of the building itself to a slew of smiling customers, some of which are familiar faces. From Jimmy Fallon to Kevin Hart, the restaurant has had its fair share of celebrity guests, but one notable guest is missing from the line up: Bill Cosby, a long time customer of Ben’s and friend of the Alis. While the restaurant eagerly tells of the comedian’s support on its ‘About’ page and features a portrait of the man on the side of the building, his many visits remain removed from the ‘Photos.’ His absence is explainable, due to the recent rape allegations, yet the restaurant has defended the large mural’s place on the restaurant even when questioned by major news sources such as The Washington Post (Carman).
(Artist Aniekan Udofia, who was commissioned by Ben’s to paint the mural, has spoken out about the portrait and its meaning to Ben’s and U Street’s history. There are debates about whether the art stands as a motive of free speech or a negative reminder of his crimes, but the Ali family has clearly stood their ground despite beginning to distance themselves form the comedian.)
If anything, this dedication shows Ben’s awareness of its past and the people who have gotten it to where it is today. Another notable part of the website links to the Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation site which does just that: recognize the community that they have been apart of for so long and work to give back to that community. Most of the projects they contribute to deal with supporting multiracial families, black students, and the youth of D.C.
Now, for a restaurant with such a rich, cultural history that works every day to give back to the U Street community and beyond, it seems odd that those aspects are absent and even hidden from a viewer’s first glance. The opening page might make you crave some good, home cooked chili but does not invite you to dive into the history of that chili. As Ben’s has proved, food is much more than just food; food is tradition, food is family, food is community, and food is, most of all, a connector. Ben’s Chili Bowl has acted as a gathering place for the people of U Street for almost sixty years and, while its food may be good, people come for the feeling of being at Ben’s. Through a time of segregation and racial tensions, economic troubles and a changing world, Ben’s has always been there. It’s like coming home.
While people might go to Ben’s website to find its address or order a late night burger online, they don’t go to it to find that feeling.
Ben’s Chili Bowl. benschilibowl.com. Accessed 14 Nov. 2016.
Carman, Tim. “Why Ben’s Chili Bowl hasn’t rushed to remove traces of Bill Cosby.” The Washington Post, 8 July 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/why-bens-chili-bowl-hasnt-rushed-to-remove-traces-of-cosby/2015/07/08/04d62d1e-2569-11e5-aae2-6c4f59b050aa_story.html
Carufel, Ashley, et al. “Restaurateur Virginia Ali.” PBS, 2012, www.pbs.org/black-culture/explore/black-chefs/bens-chili-bowl-restaurateur-virginia-ali/.
Witchel, Alex. “Ben Ali: Hot Sauce.” New York Times, 23 Dec. 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/12/27/magazine/27Ali-t.html.