Hilton Hotel evicts vet-friendly restaurant

Despite a tsunami of protest that stretched from Kuwait to London to Hawaii, a Washington restaurant that served solace and support with its free steak dinners for wounded troops was evicted Monday.

Hilton Hotel Corp. refused to budge from its intent to shut down Fran O’Brien’s Stadium Steak House, where hundreds of the worst-wounded U.S. troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were feted almost every Friday night for more than two and a half years.

“This is a tenant and a business owner that couldn’t come to terms,” Lisa Cole, a spokeswoman for Hilton, said about the dispute between the Capital Hilton Hotel and Fran’s, which rented a subterranean space there.

The disagreement began when Fran’s owners Hal Koster and Marty O’Brien asked Hilton to install an elevator or escalator from the street to the restaurant so the troops, many in wheelchairs or walking with prosthetic limbs, would not have to negotiate two-dozen steps or use a service elevator.

Hilton responded with its own demands for cosmetic improvements to the decidedly untrendy establishment, which the owners agreed to perform once a new lease was signed. Other issues surfaced, and Hilton stopped communicating with the owners. Once the old lease expired in December, the hotel doubled Fran’s rent.

While applauding Fran’s good works, Hilton said the decision was a purely business one. Cole likened the situation to a “bad marriage,” where it’s the children _ or troops, in this case _ who suffer. “We want to support our vets, and we will find other ways to contribute,” Cole said.

The prospect of Fran’s eviction galvanized a small army of volunteers who took to the Internet to try to change Hilton’s mind. In an effort dubbed “Operation Perish Hilton,” veterans and other supporters across the globe flooded Hilton with protest e-mails and telephone calls, and groups across the country canceled reservations. Conservative and liberal radio talk shows took up the cause.

High-powered fans of Fran’s, such as World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, weighed in. The American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans organization, offered to pay for half the cost of the elevator. In a letter, national commander Thomas Bock invoked the memory of hotel founder Conrad Hilton, who was a charter member of Legion Post 58 in El Paso, Texas.

“This venue has become an important element to their long recovery,” Bock wrote. “This environment has provided mental and emotional healing we can’t see or put a price tag on.”

Under assault, Hilton offered an upstairs restaurant for the dinners, a location Fran’s owners deemed unsuitable because it does not offer the requisite privacy, where those uncomfortable about their missing limbs, clumsy prosthetics and disfigured faces can feel at home.

On Monday, owners Koster, a three-tour Vietnam War veteran, and O’Brien, son of the Washington Redskins player for whom the restaurant is named, contemplated the future for them and their 31-person staff.

Other hotels have offered to temporarily host the dinners, which regularly drew dozens of long-term patients from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. The Italian ambassador to the United States has also invited the troops to dine at his embassy.

Friday evening, during the last meal for the troops at Fran’s, anger mixed with sadness. Several patrons wore T-shirts protesting that “Hilton Dishonors Veterans.” Army Staff Sgt. Chris Bain, 35, whose left arm was nearly destroyed by a 2004 mortar blast in Iraq, credited Koster, O’Brien, the volunteers and the dinners with helping him put his life back together.

Fran’s “means the world to us soldiers,” Bain said. “Shame on Hilton.”

Not all was gloomy that night. Pfc. Marissa Strock, who lost both legs after a Thanksgiving Day explosion under her Humvee in Iraq, offered an act of both gratitude and triumph.

Struggling to stand on her prosthetic limbs, Strock, 20, walked unassisted into the arms of Jim Mayer, a Vietnam War double amputee whom Koster credits with coming up with the idea of the dinners. Then, dinner done, Strock walked alone up the 20 steps to the street.

“It was the biggest gift she could give,” Mayer said. “Priceless.”

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)