WASHINGTON (AP) — Ben Ali, the founder of Ben's Chili Bowl diner, a landmark in Washington's black business and entertainment district and a frequent stop for politicians and celebrities, has died. He was 82.
Ali died of natural causes Wednesday night at his home, restaurant manager Maurice Harcum said Thursday. Ali was born in 1927 and opened the restaurant with his wife, Virginia, in an old movie house in 1958, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and integrating public schools.
It became a longtime fixture in the black business community, serving up bowls of chili and its trademark chili-covered half-smokes. The smothered sausages became Washington's answer to the Philly Cheese Steak when rivalries flared between the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles.
Ali's family posted a statement on the restaurant's Web site thanking people for an outpouring of support.
"Family, friends, and countless fans of Ben's will sorely miss the energetic and unforgettable personality of Ben Ali," the family wrote. "He was a true hero of the people and a great example of someone who actually epitomized the American dream."
Ali was an immigrant from Trinidad who moved to Washington and studied at Howard University.
The newlywed couple opened the restaurant on U Street, then known as America's "Black Broadway" for its thriving black-owned shops and theaters. Jazz greats Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole performed along the strip and were known to visit Ben's.
More recently, Bill Cosby has been a favorite guest — joining Ali to celebrate the diner's 45th anniversary — as well as President Barack Obama in January. After the 2008 presidential election, the Ali family put up a sign: "Who eats free at Ben's: —Bill Cosby —The Obama Family."
Before that, only Cosby ate for free.
D.C. Council chairman Vincent Gray called the landmark a meeting place for the D.C. community and said Ali was an "iconic figure" in the city.
The restaurant has survived tumultuous times, including the 1968 race riots, years of urban blight and recent gentrification in the surrounding neighborhood.
Virginia Ali, who oversaw the business with her sons Kamal and Nizam in recent years, has said the family didn't want to move. She said the business survived because of community support. Ben's celebrated its 50th anniversary in August 2008.
D.C. Councilman Kwame Brown called Ali a civil rights pioneer and entrepreneur.
"Through the best times and the worst times in our city's history, Ben was eternally optimistic," Brown said in a statement. "It was 51 years ago, with the sale of Ben's first hot dog, that a place was created that to this day transcends cultural, racial and political divides."
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