Earlier this year, Ben’s Chili Bowl celebrated its 50th anniversary – a truly remarkable milestone and a tough act to follow by any measure. But the Alis are ready to try.
Brothers Nizam and Kamal, the sons of Ben and Virginia Ali, have been working on a second act for the past two years. They purchased the adjacent building at 1211 U Street “to ensure the longevity of the Bowl,” allowing them to control what went in next door. As it turns out, they’ve got a pretty good idea of just what that will be – a bar and restaurant to complement and expand on Ben’s Chili Bowl without compromising the original.
Working with their wives, a cousin and a nephew, Nizam and Kamal are in the process of putting the finishing touches on Next Door – a name that pays tribute to Ben’s without forcing the connection. If you’re expecting an updated version of the Bowl, you’re in for a surprise. With a 53-foot bar (at one point this spot boasted the longest bar in the city), warm tones on the walls and nine flat-screen TVs throughout the space, this is no Ben’s Redux.
I had a chance to sit down with Nizam Ali just before the Thanksgiving holiday, and he gave us plenty to look forward to as we await Next Door’s opening some time this month. Pictures, plans and some Anthony Bourdain gossip after the jump.
I joined Nizam at the bar, admiring the dark wood inlaid with brushed metals that seemed to go on forever, and we talked about the plans for Next Door. To hear him talk about it is to know that this is not just an expansion of the family empire – this is definitely a labor of love for Nizam. Everything about the concept, from the look to the menu, has been discussed and debated at length with his family/co-owners. As it stands now, they’ve got their furniture ready to go (table seating in the back, cocktail tables and bar stools up front) and they’re finalizing the menu.
The menu, said Nizam, has been especially tricky to nail down. They wanted to offer some things that you can’t get at the Bowl – most notably salads and more elaborate entrees – but they couldn’t just ignore Ben’s altogether. So you’ll see the classic half-smoke, the hot dog, and of course the chili on Next Door’s menu, but you can expect to see some creative uses of these old standbys, as well (chili nachos, perhaps?). In a nod to the building’s history – and in direct response to Mike Licht’s query over at NotionsCapital – they’re working with the folks who bake the cakes sold at Ben’s to see if they can cook up a jelly roll for dessert.
And to wash it all down? That lengthy bar will feature ‘authentic’ cocktails – Nizam and his wife have both taken bartending classes recently, so they’ll be able to jump behind the bar if things get too hectic. Next Door will also boast ten draft lines, allowing them to offer up a selection of local and national favorites. From the Baltimore/Washington Beer Works, you’ll be able to enjoy The Raven. Or if you’re in the mood for something just a little bit cooler, you can order Heineken Extra Cold from one of the first super-chilled taps in the country. Late night, Next Door will be all about atmosphere, with cocktails and a laid-back playlist selected by the owners. Live music may be in the cards at some point, with space and a lighting rig in the rear room that could accommodate the needs of performers.
Despite its recent vacancy, this is an address with a well-established nightlife pedigree. In the late 1930s, Jelly Roll Morton was part owner (as well as sometimes bouncer, bartender, entertainer and even chef) of an establishment known as The Music Box, the Blue Moon Inn and the Jungle Inn. Tracing the history of the space up to the 1990s, 1211 U Street was the site of Manute Bol’s Spotlight Club. Nizam wants the artwork on the walls of Next Door to reflect this history as well as the history of the U Street corridor and Washington at large. “It’s our duty and our responsibility to show what’s come before,” he said.
When Next Door opens, comparisons to the Bowl are inevitable. The place IS a landmark, after all, on the must-do list for just about every Travel Channel host – Samantha Brown stopped by while filming her DC edition of “Passport to Great Weekends,” and Anthony Bourdain paid a visit for a Washington episode of “No Reservations.” Rumor has it that episode is being scheduled to coincide with the week of the Presidential Inauguration, so look for it on Monday, January 19th at 10 PM. Nizam was more than a little proud of some praise offered by Bourdain when he stopped in back in July: “I’ve never seen a place so loved by so many people.” And you heard it here first – apparently Bourdain was joined by a special guest star, author George Pelecanos (whose love for Ben’s is well-documented).
For now, we’re eager to see what Next Door will offer guests when it opens later this month. If the decor and the family’s commitment are any indication, they’re off to a really good start. Follow up with good food and the right atmosphere, and they may just be celebrating their 50th anniversary when Ben’s hits the century mark in 2058.
1211 U Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009
Open from 5 PM daily