Saturday, April 22, 2006

Capitol Hilton: "We Support Your War - But Keep Your Gimps Out of Our Lobby"

Or, at least, that's the impression the Capitol Hilton, at 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC is giving the world. Last Saturday, this story, by Petula Dvorak, was carried in the Washington Post about the closing of Fran O'Brien's, a popular steakhouse that feeds wounded veterans from Walter Reed Medical Center and the Bethesda Naval Hospital for free every Friday night.

The military blogosphere has been burning up the Internet with stories about the closing of this legendary Washington, DC eatery that has been providing the free steak dinners and limitless drinks.

You can go to these sites for various views and more details about the story:

Mudville Gazette

What the Hell Is Wrong With You

Free Republic

Black Five

In the interst of full disclosure, I should point out that my husband and I are regular customers at Fran O'Brien's. We consider owners, Hal Koster and Marty O'Brien, our friends. We're often there on Friday nights, not because of the soldiers but because it's a few blocks from where we work and it's a great place to go to wait for traffic to die down before we head out for the 14th Street Bridge. But we've seen the limbless, wounded vets many a Friday and it always, always inspires us to see what Marty and Hal are doing for them. So, here's the whole story.

About two years ago, restauranteurs Marty O’Brien, the son of former Redskins offensive lineman Fran O'Brien, who originally opened the restaurant, and partner Hal Koster approached Walter Reed with an offer to feed wounded vets and their families every Friday night. Although the owners of Fran O’Brien’s have sought to keep it low key, several local TV stations have shown up, especially since former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz used to attend the dinners regularly to listen to the soldiers’ experiences, suggestions and complaints. The event intrigued Doonsbury author Gary Trudeau, who made Fran O’Brien’s Steakhouse part of a continuing story line in his cartoon strip. Trudeau still shows up to meet with the vets.

Many of the soldiers who show up have severe wounds, including missing limbs.They are on crutches and in wheel chairs. And to get to Fran’s, which is in the basement of the Capitol Hilton, they have to navigate a steep stairway. Many have to be carried down. Marty and Hal had asked the Hilton to put in an elevator or even a ramp to make their restaurant ADA compliant for the veterans. Since they are renters, it’s not their property and they can’t just do it themselves.

Recently, their lease came due for renewal and Fran’s owners heard nothing from the Hilton, their landlord. They sent emails, made phone calls, etc., and were assured that there were no problems with the lease. Then, suddenly, Fran O’Brien’s received an eviction notice, effective May 1. As has been reported, in the WaPo, and on various military blogs, the Hilton cited a fear of liability issues. They claimed they were afraid they’d be held responsible if one of the already disabled veterans had an accident that led to further injuries on the stairs or in the Hilton lobby. Many, however, believe that the Hilton just doesn’t want a lot of limbless, severely injured veterans being seen in their lobby, especially since their attire is frequently casual and many of the guys don’t look like the stylishly groomed corporate types who usually frequent big city Hiltons.

The Hilton has, of course, denied this. They even claim that they have offered to take over hosting the Friday night dinners at their own restaurant, Twigs, which is at ground floor level.

Well, I’ve seen Twigs. As last Saturday’s WaPo story also points out, the ambience is very different from Fran’s. Fran O’Brien’s is dark, wood paneled, filled with sports paraphernalia and plush leather booths. It has the solid, masculine feel of a hearty steakhouse that caters to people who order ribeyes with scotch or beer. It’s founder, after all, was a Redskins football player. It also has the best steaks I’ve ever had anywhere in the U.S, including Chicago. Better even, my husband claims, than the steaks he’s had in Iowa. In fact, neither of us have ever had a bad meal at all at Fran’s and in addition to steaks, they also serve great seafood and Italian specialties and world-class wine.

I’ve never eaten in Twigs so I can’t comment on their food. But we pass it all the time on our way to Fran’s. It looks like a freaking fern bar. All dainty tables, plants, light wood. It’s a place where you go to get fancy, overpriced tiny portions of frou frou food with white wine, not a good thick, tender steak with a beer. It also doesn’t have the private room where the soldiers can go to let their hair down, relax with their friends and families without being gawked at by the public, and meet with the Pentagon officials who also still show up.

In addition, Hal Koster’s relationship with the veterans goes beyond just throwing together a dinner for them once a week. A Vietnam veteran, himself, he visits them at Walter Reed and Bethesda. He’s given some of them jobs at the restaurant while they’re recovering to ease them back into civilian life. I don’t think the Hilton will do all that.

Meanwhile, all this has struck a sour note with veterans all over the country. Even people who’ve never been there – never been to Washington – are incensed over this. And a couple of websites have posted the email addresses of the Hilton corporate officers who are responsible for the decision to boot Fran’s from the Hilton. Readers and bloggers have jammed their inboxes and shut them down. They’ve also jammed the email address of the Hilton honors program causing that to temporarily shut down too. And they’re planning boycotts of the Hilton chain.

I agree with them that this just isn't right, so I’m passing on the email sites and phone numbers so that others besides the military men and women can let the Hilton know what a PR disaster this is for them. Whether you agree with the U.S. foreign policy and the Iraqi War (personally, I don't) or not, it's just wrong to pull the weekly Friday night dinners away from the vets and it's wrong to close Fran O'Brien's, which is actually a beloved restaurant, not just to the vets but to a lot of Washingtonians in search of a great meal in a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

Below is a name, phone number and email address for the New York Hilton's corporate offices:

Dan Boyle 212-838-1558

And below is the name and phone number of the General Manager of the Capitol Hilton.

Brian Kellaher (202) 393-1000.

Oh, and for good measure, here's the Hilton Website, including a link to their Honors Program.
And the snail mail address for the Capitol Hilton is 10001 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036

Write on!


Howling Latina said...

What an outrage.

Thanks for the contact names and Web sites.

And I'm sure I don't have to tell you, but you are a truly good writer.

James Knight said...

I am a retired disabled veteran. I spent a year at Walter Reed and was retired early after 14 years of service after being injured in a Combat Training Exercise (CTX/FTX). I only received a brain injury and some relatively minor orthopedic injuries compared to those soldiers that are losing their place of honor at Fran O'Brians because of Hilton arrogance. These soldiers have sacrificed their limbs for their country, which in my mind is the next thing to sacrificing their lives.

We owe these more than to stand by and allow them to be effectively evicted because of Hilton Hotels may have been advised by their insurance company that Hilton may be discontinued or that their insurance rates would increase if they continued to serve disabled vets in wheelchairs and on crutches as part of a regular function on their property. Hilton always had the option to change their insurance stupid company. Instead, and if true, it appears that instead of going to that trouble of changing insurance company's, they chose to evict the disabled vets from their property by closing Fran O'Brians.

Hilton admits that they have no future plans for the space currently occupied by Fran O'Brians, so it is clear to this disabled vet that Hilton is hedging their bets by evicting Fran O'Brians and thereby evicting the disabled vets. They kill two birds with one stone.

Unfortunately, as someone else mentioned, Paris is probably the keenest member of the Hilton family and she has no college behind her. The Hilton’s MBA’s seem to have made them stupid and heartless, though they were probably that already. The Hiltons still appear to have no idea what they have done and are doing. We vets have long memories and so do patriotic Americans when we are insulted through our country’s warriors, who are nothing less than extensions of ourselves.

You know, I remember during the Reagan Administration when the French refused us flyover rights when we attacked Libya, resulting in the loss of one of our pilots probably to fatigue because of the flight around Spain and down through the Mediterranean. I still hate the French basta*ds for that and I will always remember what they did then. I will always hate the Hiltons in the very same way. Many Americans feel the same way. The Hiltons are digging their own grave. They should stop listening to their accountants and listen to their PR people, or hire PR people with the wherewithal to tell them the truth or maybe they should just listen to their conscience if they have one. Maybe the Hiltons should all move to France. They may be more at home there, as they act more like the French and less like Americans.

Basta*ds! Perish Hilton! Zeig Hilton! Heil Hilton!