Ben Ali, 82, 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, died Wednesday of heart failure in Washington.
Mr. Ali 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 bowls of chili and its trademark chili-covered half-smokes.
The smothered sausages became Washington's answer to the Philly cheesesteak when rivalries flared between the Washington Redskins and the Eagles.
Mr. Ali was an immigrant from Trinidad, who moved to Washington to study at Howard University's medical and dental schools. He withdrew after injuring his back. The couple opened the restaurant on U Street. Music greats Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole were known to visit Ben's.
Bill Cosby was a favorite guest, as well as President Obama in January. After the 2008 election, Mr. Ali put up a sign: "Who eats free at Ben's: Bill Cosby - The Obama Family."
The restaurant survived tumultuous times, including the 1968 riots after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Ben's remained open, serving both protesters and police.