Fran O'Brien's Loses Lease

Marty O'Brien hopes to relocate and continue the dinners for wounded vets.
Marty O'Brien hopes to relocate and continue the dinners for wounded vets. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 15, 2006

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.

But Hilton spokeswoman Lisa Cole said the hotel's position on the lease has nothing to do with the dinners. She said its decision was based strictly on business considerations.

O'Brien's owners knew their lease was coming up. But after months of negotiations, the hotel chain told them this week that it would not be renewed. The lease expires May 1.

"We're going to try to relocate. And we'd like to stay in downtown D.C.," O'Brien said.

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. 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."

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