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Ben's Chil Bowl Founder Dies

By Matt Schudel, Washington Post: If the rest of the world sees Washington as a place of large monuments and gleaming public buildings, many of the people who actually live in the city build their lives around smaller, more humble institutions. For them, one of the most important addresses in town is Ben's Chili Bowl, a simple diner famous for its down-home menu of chili, half-smokes and fries.

Ben Ali, who founded the restaurant in 1958 and created its unmatched chili recipe, died Wednesday of congestive heart failure at his home in the District. He was 82.

His family-run diner on U Street NW has been one of the most enduring institutions of Washington, a place where families meet after church and where night owls come to talk, flirt and, not least, eat.

The landmark eatery opened when U Street was the city's glittering "Black Broadway," a strip of nightclubs and theaters that catered to Washington's black middle class and helped define the city's pulse and taste. It became a steadfast symbol of Washington's perseverance through good times and bad, feeding the dignitaries who came to Washington as well as the ordinary folks who call the District home.

In a statement, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty called Ben's Chili Bowl "one of the greatest treasures in the District of Columbia."

On Jan. 10, the restaurant received perhaps its greatest publicity boost when Fenty and president-elect Obama dropped by for a half-smoke -- a smoked sausage that is often called the signature food of Washington. Mindful of a sign that warned, "Who eats free at Ben's: Bill Cosby. No one else," Obama paid for his $12 tab with a $20 bill, leaving the change as a tip. The president's name has been added to Cosby's as the only patrons allowed to dine without paying.

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