Ben’s Chili Bowl, a D.C. restaurant famous for its half-smokes, celebrity drop-ins, and ties to the civil rights movement, is preparing for some redecorating. This week, the restaurant painted over the giant mural of Bill Cosby, Donnie Simpson, Chuck Brown and President Barack Obama that has lived on its outside walls since 2012.
Kamal Ali, one of the restaurant’s owners, said his customers have been talking about that mural for a long time, arguing over who should or shouldn’t be featured. Now, he said, it’s time to let the public decide. “We’d like people to tag the mural with positive sentiments of healing the country. And the world,” he said. “We just had the inauguration, lots of protests, the Women’s March, which was huge, and then there’s the Black Lives Matter movement, with police brutality and those things going on. So it just seemed like an appropriate time.”
The beloved restaurant is asking fans and customers to vote on who should be depicted on the new mural. The list of new possibilities includes 59 artists, celebrities, activists, athletes, politicians and chefs: everyone from Gandhi to Kevin Durant to Nikki Giovanni to Rachael Ray. There are some local D.C. heroes, too, like Charlene Drew Jarvis, a longtime public servant and former president of Southeastern University. There are international superstars, like Michael Jackson and Oprah Winfrey. Voters can also write in their own suggestions if they aren’t inspired by anyone on the list.
Already, over 5,000 people have voted in the online poll, which will stay open through the end of February. Fans have begun to weigh in on Twitter, with a strong contingent pushing to keep Obama on the wall. Some want women to finally be represented — a fact that Ali said is reflected in the poll, which includes 21 women.
The owners of Ben’s Chili Bowl hope to have a decision made in March, and the new mural is slated to be up by April 1. But even after the public has spoken and the new mural goes up, Ali expects the discussions to continue. “All over half-smokes,” he said.