Isabel forces end of restaurant, era

Decision: After 67 years as a Chesapeake Beach landmark, Wesley Stinnett's closes its doors.

November 24, 2003|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

What would become of Wesley Stinnett's restaurant?

In the weeks after Tropical Storm Isabel swept through, the question lingered in the salty air over Chesapeake Beach. Everyone, it seemed, had a theory about the fate of the cozy, 67-year-old bayside diner, its interior destroyed by flooding from the storm.

It was not until this month, after much deliberation, that brothers Gerald and Fred Donovan came to a difficult decision. So difficult, Gerald Donovan said, that they could not deliver the news in person.

Instead, they took out a full-page announcement in four Calvert County newspapers.

"Thanks for the memories," it read. "Now, it is unfortunately time for us to close our doors. This is the end of an era for us."

Over a cup of coffee on a recent afternoon in Chesapeake Beach, Gerald Donovan spoke about shutting Stinnett's, known to generations for its casual atmosphere and home-cooked fare such as fried chicken, hamburgers and milkshakes.

"It was such a hard thing to do," he said. "When you're so close to something that's been so good to our family over all these years, it's just ... very difficult."

Donovan's grandparents, Wesley and Elizabeth Stinnett, opened the restaurant in 1936, a year after the railway line between Chesapeake Beach and Washington stopped running, causing a lag in Wesley Stinnett's charter boat operation. The closure of the 27-mile railroad also put an end to the town's booming tourism industry, which had -- in its heyday -- drawn thousands of visitors to its mile-long pier lined with games, restaurants and a roller coaster.

Gerald and Fred Donovan purchased Stinnett's from their aunt and uncle, Gordon and Terry Stinnett, in 1992, hoping to breathe new life into the restaurant. Gerald Donovan, who has been mayor of Chesapeake Beach for 21 years, also wanted to continue its tradition of catering to the community. From its inception, Stinnett's has attracted a steady stream of regulars, as well as fishermen who dock their boats at the pier behind the restaurant.

Hindering Donovan's efforts, however, was the damage caused by more than 30 floods over 10 years.

"Mother Nature is winning," Donovan said. "And we can't keep taking a beating."

Located about 150 feet from the shore, Stinnett's sits on a piece of wetlands that has been sinking an average of 2 inches every year. A flood gate set up to protect the area only made matters worse during Isabel, forcing water inland and trapping it in the area surrounding Stinnett's.

Although preparing for storms had become almost routine for Donovan, he said nothing could have readied the restaurant for Isabel's wrath in September.

"It was, in a word, devastating," Donovan said. "The water just had nowhere to go."

Six feet of it crashed into Stinnett's, destroying all the furniture, washing away the bar and causing the walls of the walk-in refrigerator to collapse. The water climbed high enough to ruin more than 20 black-and-white photographs of the restaurant from the 1930s and 1940s that lined the walls.

What's worse, Donovan said, is that just three months ago, he and his brother finished remodeling the interior of Stinnett's, replacing the furniture and installing an electric train that ran on a track around the ceiling, a job that cost upward of $200,000. Donovan estimates the total damage incurred during the storm at $800,000.

Last week, on a crisp fall afternoon, the parking lot of Stinnett's was empty except for a few pools of water left from a recent rainstorm. Although it was built in the 1930s, the restaurant has the look of a 1950s diner -- a square, single-floor structure with a drive-through window and large sign on its roof, which is the color of salmon.

Isabel's track is still visible -- a clear line of destruction beginning at a torn-up pier, traveling through the back yards of several luxury condominiums littered with tree limbs, beyond the back fence of Stinnett's and into its tiny yard, now a tangle of wood, mud and other debris. Through the blinds on the windows, the interior looks as if the storm shook it up like a snow globe, turning everything upside down.

Out front, its roadside sign reads: "Home of Country Cookin' Since 1936."

"Stinnett's was a landmark," said Bernard Gibson, a 13-year resident of Chesapeake Beach and a regular for breakfast at the restaurant. "If I wanted to tell people how to get to my house, I'd tell them to look for the orange roof."

When asked about Stinnett's, residents of Chesapeake Beach get a far-off gaze of nostalgia, recalling fondly how the restaurant remained open every day except for Christmas. Even during some of the state's worst snowstorms, Stinnett's could be counted on, they said, as a gathering place for meals, comfort, and catching up on the latest news.

"Whether it was right or wrong, you'd hear it at Stinnett's," said Michelle Jenkins, who works at the Town Hall and regularly bought her lunch at the restaurant's drive-through window. "It's such a shame -- just so sad."

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