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Isabel forces end of restaurant, era

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.

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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.

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"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.

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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.

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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."

Kathy Johnson, who also works at the Town Hall, said she used to bring her family to Stinnett's for dinner.

"I used to go in there with my kids screaming and it wouldn't matter because it was a family place," Jenkins said, recalling a Christmas Eve spent at Stinnett's, dancing to Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas" playing on the jukebox.

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Like most members of his immediate family, Gerald Donovan often ate three meals a day at Stinnett's. One of his favorites was the fried-chicken dinner.

"It was like my second home," he said.

Donovan recalls the regulars at Stinnett's as if he has turned back the clock and walked through its front door.

"There was Miss Ruby Langston -- she ate there three times a day," he said. "And I can't forget Leonard Stark -- he worked the night shift for 30 years."

Some residents, such as Jimmy Graves, are still coming to terms with the closing of Stinnett's.

"I will miss them dearly," said Graves, owner of Bay Clippers, a barbershop next door to the restaurant. "Every time I look over there and see someone cleaning up, I hope that maybe they've changed their minds and will rebuild."

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But Donovan remains resolute in his decision. To appease his customers, he has transferred some of Stinnett's most popular meals to the menu at Smokey Joe's, a restaurant he owns a few blocks away.

While he declines to offer any specifics about his plans for the land, Donovan said he is considering putting in a residential building -- something high enough off the ground to avoid floods.

"Whatever we do," he said, "it will be something that our family, and the community, will be proud of."


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