It was so central to their lives that family members called it simply "the place."
Where was Grandma? Down at the place. Need to find brother Freddy? Check the place. Beginning in 1936, Wesley Stinnett's Restaurant anchored the little town of Chesapeake Beach in Calvert County. It was a place for crab cakes and oyster roasts, a place to hear the whirl of the jukebox and feel the breeze off the bay.
Now it is an empty parking lot -- no place special anymore.
The restaurant, owned by Chesapeake Beach Mayor Gerald Donovan and his brother Fred Donovan, grandchildren of the original owners, was torn down last week. It had been badly damaged during Hurricane Isabel two years ago when the surging Chesapeake Bay filled the building halfway up the windows. Stinnett's had endured other storms over the decades, but the magnitude of Isabel's destruction made family members realize it was a problem not about to go away.
"Two days after Isabel, we were still in there cleaning up. We didn't have any electric, it was hot, it was brutal, and we got flooded all over again. That was the straw that broke the camel's back," said Gerald Donovan. "Mother Nature is still the boss. We took our beating, and then my brother and I made the decision to do what we did. We're moving on."
The decision was confirmed when vandals broke into the closed restaurant this year and smashed more than a dozen Tiffany-style lamps, broke the mirror behind the bar and set a fire in the kitchen. There was no insurance to pay for the losses, said Donovan, and the neighbors were pressing him to get rid of what had become an eyesore.
"This has been very difficult for everyone," he said. "This place is nothing but sweet memories for a lot of people."
Ethel Lou Bennett, 75, one of Wesley and Elizabeth Stinnett's four children, grew up in a home attached to the restaurant. As a girl, she helped by cleaning tables and later worked as a waitress. Back then, there were no sea walls or condominiums blocking the view, and people could walk right from the restaurant to the water.
During World War II, the Navy boys would come into the restaurant, and she would dance and dance until her mother, with a stern look, came out holding a cup of coffee.
"That's when I knew it was time to go to bed," she said.
Over the years, the restaurant had outlasted the neighboring bowling alley and a gas station. On the same lot a Chinese restaurant became a mechanical shop, which in turn became a storage facility before it was torn down.
"So, you know, as our little town gets revitalized, this is part of the revitalization," Donovan said.
He plans to build condominiums on the property and name them Stinnett Place Condominiums as a tribute to the restaurant's nickname.
After Wesley Stinnett died in 1963, his son Gordon and his wife, Terry, eventually took over and ran the business for about 20 years. In 1992, the Donovan brothers bought the restaurant, and it was open until the hurricane swept through in September 2003.
"My nephew had just renovated the whole place, with new booths and new tables, but the water went up so high it was just impossible to save anything," said Bennett. "It just ruined everything, all the kitchen equipment, stoves, heaters, dishwashers, all the furniture was ruined. You know, when that muddy murky water gets in there, it starts to smell."
Bennett, the only surviving child of Wesley and Elizabeth Stinnett, still keeps in her purse one of the commemorative pennies her father distributed to patrons. One side reads "world peace" and "victory," and the other says the establishment's original name: "Wesley Stinnett's Tavern."
"It's my good luck piece," she said as she stood in the parking lot where the restaurant used to be.
"I'm pretty sad. Yes, I am. It's an awful thing to see a business that your mom and dad built up many, many years ago, to just lose it. I'll miss it. But life goes on, you know."