Thursday, April 20, 2006

After September 11, many American businesses were asking what they could do to help. Among the best to act was Fran O’Brien’s Stadium Steakhouse at 16th and L Streets Northwest, which for more than two years has served free steak dinners and beverages on Fridays to wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from Walter Reed Medical Center in upper Northwest and elsewhere. The restaurant, a cozy nest of sports memorabilia tucked in the basement of the Capital Hilton Hotel, just lost its lease and is in danger of closing for good, for what appear to be very shabby reasons.

According to co-proprietor Hal Koster, the trouble began earlier this year when lease negotiations with Hilton broke down over the installment of a lift for wheelchair-bound veterans to enter the premises, which are at basement level. “We compromised on just about everything else, but we said, ‘You have to do the lift,’ ” Mr. Koster recounted in a phone interview with The Washington Times. But Hilton balked because the costs would be higher than anticipated.

About a month ago Mr. Koster and business partner Marty O’Brien, son of the late Redskins tackle and restaurant namesake, received an eviction notice. “They haven’t said anything to us” beyond the official notice, Mr. Koster reports. But to his mind, it was clear enough that Hilton evicted him because it didn’t want to pay for the lift.

This story shouldn’t — we’d go so far as to say couldn’t — end badly. More than once has Fran O’Brien’s been the first place a wounded vet begins to feel normal again, and that shouldn’t end over a lift.

Hilton couldn’t possibly want to strangle the spirit and community that’s arisen around these dinners. Perhaps it will reconsider. It has already offered to continue the dinners in a ballroom or at Twigs, its ground-level restaurant, a self-described “Tuscan journey” bordering on the exotic with things like truffles and bean puree. (We suspect the vets would prefer something a little homier. Can’t a guy get a good steak dinner when he needs one?)

In the immediate future, a rival has stepped in to be the goodwill enterprise that Hilton apparently isn’t. Mr. Koster reports that rival Crown Plaza Hotel has agreed to host the dinners temporarily.

The longer term, though, is cloudier: Mr. Koster hasn’t found a suitable location downtown yet. He may have to relocate to Bethesda or Ballston, if he does at all.

It won’t be easy or cheap to find another location for these dinners. According to Ramona Joyce, an American Legion spokeswoman currently helping them spread the word, the dinners cost $3,500-$4,000 each to serve anywhere from 30-60 people. At least the cost is covered partly by a charity, the Aleethia Foundation. But clearly Fran O’Brien’s started this tradition at considerable cost to itself.

In a tough business like this, it takes a lot of gumption to do what Fran O’Brien’s did. But then, the same and more can be said of the people it helped out. There must be a good solution to this somewhere in Washington, a restaurant or commercial landlord willing to give the country’s wounded veterans a few seats at the table.

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