Fran O'Brien, 63, former Redskin known for bay area restaurants

October 26, 1999|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Fran O'Brien, the former Washington Redskins lineman whose Annapolis bar and restaurant were once standing-room-only hangouts for powerful lobbyists, legislators and bon vivants, died Thursday of a heart attack at George Washington University Hospital in Washington. He was 63 and lived in Vienna, Va.

Mr. O'Brien -- who also had restaurants in Washington and Rehoboth Beach, Del. -- was a 6-foot-1, 240-pound offensive right tackle for the Redskins in the 1960s. He opened his first restaurant, the Goal Post, on Washington's Wisconsin Avenue at that time. His Annapolis place opened several years later.

"In the days when the lobbyists could spend as much as they wanted, Fran O'Brien's was the legislature's favorite place," said John R. Hammond, Anne Arundel County's financial officer.

Fran O'Brien's Steak and Seafood House on Main Street was one of the Maryland capital's most popular restaurants. On a busy night in the 1980s, it was common for the wait staff to serve more than 500 dinners.

"It was the place to go," said Ted Levitt, owner of Chick & Ruth's Delly on Main Street in Annapolis. "The older generation went early for the dinner, and the younger people went to the place later for drinking and dancing."

A fire closed the restaurant temporarily in March 1984, in the middle of legislative session. The Sun reported, "Grown men and women suddenly became disoriented, unable to say where they would spend the evening."

Former state Sen. Laurence Levitan, who represented Montgomery County, said: "When the night's legislative session broke, everyone went there. It was the watering hole in Annapolis. There was a lot of camaraderie, and a lot got accomplished there."

Mr. O'Brien devised a formula that kept his places elbow to elbow with repeat customers.

"My father liked people to look at one another when they were at the bar," said his son, Marty O'Brien, who lives in Washington. "All his restaurants had square bars and live music that played the Top 40. It was his formula, along with good steaks and chops."

Born Francis Joseph O'Brien in Springfield, Mass., he was raised in nearby Holyoke and was an education graduate of Michigan State University, where he played for the Spartans. Signing with the Cleveland Browns, he played for them during the 1959 season.

"He was a fine football player," said ex-Colt lineman Artie Donovan, who lives in Baltimore County. "In the first exhibition game I recall, he did a pretty good job on [Gino] Marchetti and myself."

In April 1960, he was traded to the Washington Redskins, where he became well known. In 1966, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He stayed three seasons there until he gave up the game in 1969 and devoted himself to his restaurant business.

He sold his interest in the Annapolis business -- today known as O'Brien's -- some years ago. At the time of his death, he owned Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steak House in Washington.

He married the former Elizabeth Kemp in 1965. They were divorced five years ago.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 1 p.m. tomorrow at St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Rhode Island and Connecticut avenues in Northwest Washington.

In addition to his son, he is survived by a daughter, Elizabeth Vento of Rome; his parents, Sally and John O'Brien of Holyoke, Mass.; a sister, Beverly Stepno of Boston; a companion, Frances Blevins of Vienna, Va.; and two granddaughters.

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