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:
What the Hell Is Wrong With You
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