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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Hilton Hotel Decision Angers Wounded Veterans

Yesterday the Washington Post reported that Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steakhouse, a restaurant beloved by our on-the-mend combat vets at Walter Reed Medical Center, has been refused a lease renewal by landlord Hilton Hotels. The restaurant's basement location in the Capitol Hilton will have to be vacated by May 1, 2006. [See this heart-tugging WUSA Channel 9 video report.]

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for all the maddening details...

The decision has created an understandable uproar in the veteran's community: Fran O'Brien's has been treating our severly wounded veterans to complimentary Friday night steak dinners for the past 2 1/2 years. Their generosity has become legendary, and going out for dinner at Fran O'Brien's has become a "rite of passage" after difficult months spent recovering from serious injuries in a sterile hospital bed. Veteran's families have begun asking Hilton Hotels to re-think their decision. To help them to do that, a petition has gone up.

Please consider signing the petition and passing the link along to others who might join us if you're so inclined. As many of us celebrate a holiday today with loved ones at our side and good food passed all around, I don't think there's a more appropriate advocacy action worth your time and effort than this one.

From the Washington Post:

The steaks are great, of course.

But it isn't the T-bones, the porterhouses or the rib-eyes that will be sorely, even painfully, missed when Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steakhouse loses its lease and closes its doors this month.

The downtown D.C. restaurant, which has hosted a decade's worth of power lunches, political dinners and salacious hookups, is more poignantly known for its Friday night steak dinners for severely wounded soldiers recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "It looks like they're kicking us out," sighed Marty O'Brien, son of the late Redskins offensive lineman Fran O'Brien, before closing the restaurant yesterday afternoon for the Easter weekend.

For the past 2 1/2 years, O'Brien and business partner Hal Koster have made their thick steak dinners and a night of bottomless drinks one of the rites of passage for the soldiers who are steeling themselves for their postwar lives in wheelchairs or with prosthetic limbs.

They come to the subterranean restaurant, at the corner of 16th and L streets NW in the basement of the Capital Hilton, in volunteer's vans and trucks. They're carefully wheeled down the stairs or slowly negotiate the steps on crutches. It has become a tradition so beloved among veterans that Garry Trudeau featured the dinners in his Doonesbury comic strip.

Jim Mayer, a veteran who works at the Department of Veterans Affairs and who helped start the steak dinner tradition, is concerned that the hotel wants to eliminate the spectacle of hundreds of severely disabled soldiers coming in and out of its building or that the restaurant's repeated requests for a new elevator or escalator to accommodate them was too much.

Hilton Hotels says the decision is strictly a 'business decision.' After many months of negotiations with the O'Brien owners, they advised the restaurant this week they would not to renew their lease.

The Hilton has offered to help take over the Friday night dinner tradition. Management has suggested the dinners could move to a ballroom or the hotel's other restaurant, Twigs. "Twigs? Nah, . . . they don't get it. It's not just about a place and some food," he said. "I have these guys' numbers in my cellphone. I talk to them. We check on them. Hal picks them up. . . . He brings them milkshakes."

Of course, atmosphere might have something to do with the appeal to veterans. O'Brien's is a virile place, with deep red booths and a long, polished bar [take a look at these photos of the place and the food!]. Sports memorabilia everywhere. A longtime hangout for Redskins players. The pool tournament on television. American flags on the walls. Some veterans have called it the first place where they've felt at home since they left the battlefield and months of sterile hospitals.

The veterans are outraged that O'Brien's is being forced to move out. So Mayer and other veterans have begun a campaign. They're calling Hilton's New York headquarters and flooding its e-mail boxes. "I've got a whole bunch of guys, big groups of people, the service members, who are coming to me and asking: 'Who do we go give static to? What can we do about this?' "Mayer said. "I'm holding them back. I'm telling them: 'Look, we know how you feel, but you're on active duty, so just stay cool for awhile. We'll work on it.' "

O'Brien's intends to hold two more Friday night dinners. In the meantime, the Italian Embassy has called O'Brien, offering its digs for the dinners until he comes up with another plan.

Retired Army Staff Sgt. Michael Cain will never forget the porterhouse he had on his first night at O'Brien's, in 2003 after five months in the hospital. "It beat the hell out of hospital food," said Cain, who lost part of a leg in an explosion in Tikrit. He spent many nights at O'Brien's regaining his appetite, his humor and his dignity. "I really hope they don't end this," Cain said. "It's a great thing that a lot of guys look forward to."

Check out Fran O'Brien's super hip website. Get a feel for the place; then sign the petition if you'd like to chime in. You may also wish to contact Hilton Hotels management, but PLEASE be very respectful if you choose to do so; let them know how much the troops value their Fran O'Brien's experience and that you wish they could re-think their decision:

Online contact form [see this post for a sample letter]

There's other contact information floating around out there, but I hesitate to add it here. It does appear that a number of groups have been working on this problem for the past week, with the consensus being that Hilton Hotels won't budge on the decision. Rather than inundate the Capitol Hilton's management with calls and emails, it may be better to just sign the petition; if you want to go one step further, register your complaint using the company's online contact form. Then, hope for the best...

Update, 5/1/06

Sad news.

The pressure -- and there was a lot of it from many, many groups -- to get Hilton Hotels to reconsider their decision apparently just wasn't enough. Last Friday, April 28th, was the final complimentary Friday steak dinner night for our recovering veterans hosted at Fran O'Brien's. The Washington Post covered the event; and we get some additional details from Scripps Howard News Service:

Despite a tsunami of protest that stretched from Kuwait to London to Hawaii, a Washington restaurant that served solace and support with its free steak dinners for wounded troops was evicted Monday. Hilton Hotel Corp. refused to budge from its intent to shut down Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steak House, where hundreds of the worst-wounded U.S. troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were feted almost every Friday night for more than two and a half years. "This is a tenant and a business owner that couldn't come to terms," Lisa Cole, a spokeswoman for Hilton, said about the dispute between the Capital Hilton Hotel and Fran's, which rented a subterranean space there.

The disagreement began when Fran's owners Hal Koster and Marty O'Brien asked Hilton to install an elevator or escalator from the street to the restaurant so the troops, many in wheelchairs or walking with prosthetic limbs, would not have to negotiate two-dozen steps or use a service elevator. Hilton responded with its own demands for cosmetic improvements to the decidedly untrendy establishment, which the owners agreed to perform once a new lease was signed. Other issues surfaced, and Hilton stopped communicating with the owners. Once the old lease expired in December, the hotel doubled Fran's rent. ...

The prospect of Fran's eviction galvanized a small army of volunteers who took to the Internet to try to change Hilton's mind. In an effort dubbed "Operation Perish Hilton," veterans and other supporters across the globe flooded Hilton with protest e-mails and telephone calls, and groups across the country canceled reservations. Conservative and liberal radio talk shows took up the cause.

High-powered fans of Fran's, such as World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, weighed in. The American Legion, the nation's largest veterans organization, offered to pay for half the cost of the elevator. In a letter, national commander Thomas Bock invoked the memory of hotel founder Conrad Hilton, who was a charter member of Legion Post 58 in El Paso, Texas. "This venue has become an important element to their long recovery," Bock wrote. "This environment has provided mental and emotional healing we can't see or put a price tag on."

Under assault, Hilton offered an upstairs restaurant for the dinners, a location Fran's owners deemed unsuitable because it does not offer the requisite privacy, where those uncomfortable about their missing limbs, clumsy prosthetics and disfigured faces can feel at home. ...

Friday evening, during the last meal for the troops at Fran's, anger mixed with sadness. Several patrons wore T-shirts protesting that "Hilton Dishonors Veterans." Army Staff Sgt. Chris Bain, 35, whose left arm was nearly destroyed by a 2004 mortar blast in Iraq, credited Koster, O'Brien, the volunteers and the dinners with helping him put his life back together. Fran's "means the world to us soldiers," Bain said. "Shame on Hilton."

Sad, sad state of affairs that this issue couldn't have been resolved. A great loss...

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