Ben's Chili Bowl, founded in 1958, is one of the oldest continuous businesses on U Street. It is one of the few that survived both the riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the years of disruptive Metro construction in the late 1980s. Virginia and Ben Ali have been its proprietors from the beginning. It has become a national landmark thanks to the patronage of Bill Cosby, who frequented Ben's when he was courting his wife Camille. Cosby still makes it a point to visit – or pick up food from – Ben's when he comes to Washington.

The proprietors display photographs that document the restaurant's history. Ben's occupies the former Minnehaha Theater, and the theater's arched entrance is still visible in the outlines of Ben's window. The theater was built in 1910 to a design by white architect F.A. Hurlehane. The theater was originally a nickelodeon, a modest neighborhood movie theater with a sloped floor and a projection booth high on the back wall of the auditorium. It was owned and operated from 1913 until 1920 by Sherman H. Dudley, who earlier had a career as a leading vaudeville performer. At that time African American businessmen were building and acquiring theaters throughout Washington, especially along U Street. The Ben's building is the city's only remaining former nickelodeon.


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