Her restaurant, Ben's Chili Bowl, has been a gathering place for people of all kinds, from community organizers to world leaders.

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Portrait of Virginia Ali
Credit: T.J. KIRKPATRICK / REDUX

The banquettes at Ben's Chili Bowl were packed. The stools were occupied. It was hard to get a seat at this D.C. institution, but the food came out quickly, so you only had to wait a few minutes for the tables to turn. It was 1963, and a young man waiting inside the restaurant was impatient and stressed. Virginia Ali, the proprietor of this local joint, could feel the man's angst and quickly cleared a table. "What's wrong?" she asked.

"I've got this idea," he responded."I just don't know how to execute it."

Ali said, "Well, tell me what it is; maybe I can help." And the man said, "It's called the March on Washington." That man was, of course, Martin Luther King Jr., one of many influential Americans who dined regularly at the Chili Bowl, his heart fueled by Ali's famous half-smokes—a half beef, half pork sausage that's grilled, sandwiched in a steamed bun, and topped with mustard, onions, and housemade chili sauce.

Ever since Ali and her late husband, Ben, opened the restaurant in 1958, a year after they met, the Chili Bowl has been a gathering place for people of all kinds, from community organizers to world leaders. In fact, when asked about her greatest achievement, Ali credits her ability to bring people together through food. That's exactly what she has done for 63 years, whipping up chili-cheese half-smokes for the masses and feeding the fight for racial equality.

By the Numbers

$5,000

The amount of money Ben and Virginia Ali started with when they began renovating the building that would become Ben's Chili Bowl

2M+

Gallons of chili sold at the Chili Bowl through- out the years

7

Locations of Ben's Chili Bowl that exist today, including out- posts at stadiums and airports

No. 1

Seller: the half-smoke

25M+

Half-smokes sold since the Chili Bowl opened in 1958

2009

The year that President Barack Obama first dined at the Chili Bowl; it was January 10, and the meal was his first public outing as president-elect.Locations of Ben's Chili Bowl that exist today, including out- posts at stadiums and airports.

Living Legend

In August 2021, at the first-ever F&W Family Reunion—an event that celebrated diversity within the hospitality industry—Ali was given the Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her rich and vital contributions to both the D.C. community and the world at large.