Fairfax’s 29 Diner is set to reopen this fall after being closed due to a fire

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John Wood isn’t used to being the one in need. By 29 Dinnerthe historic Fairfax greasy spoon he’s owned since 2014, he’s raised $300,000 through his “Be a Hero, Feed a Hero” program, half of which goes to suicide prevention and mental health initiatives, and since the start of the pandemic, he has donated more than 300,000 meals and transformed the 49-seat restaurant into a pantry.

Then a fire destroyed the kitchen.

“Within five hours it was taken away from everyone here in the community. Everything good we did was taken away from us,” said Wood, 53. But “if you think it’s a story about the restaurant, it’s not. It is the light that rises from the ashes.

The morning after the Nov. 23, 2021, fire, which happened just at the start of Wood’s “donating season,” as his team prepared Thanksgiving meals to distribute to eight local domestic violence shelters and to 46 families of disabled veterans, Maj Donald Wilson of the Salvation Army of Fairfax stopped in the restaurant parking lot with a 32-foot mobile canteen to help continue food preparation.

“We delivered on all of our promises for the giving season,” said Wood, a Fairfax native and alumnus of George Mason University School of Business. Additionally, a local teacher set up a GoFundMe campaign to help the assistant. He raised around $73,000 in two months.

On May 5, Wood announced on the restaurant’s Facebook page that it would reopen on October 10, bringing back the thick slices of applewood-smoked bacon, milkshakes and Texas-style barbecue that customers know and love. The look of the new restaurant will be a throwback to when it opened in 1947, with restored booths, lights and fixtures, but a fully modern open kitchen that’s also eco-friendly. For example, he is working to create a self-contained battery backup powered by Tesla solar panels that will allow the restaurant to disconnect from the power grid and run on battery power alone for long periods of time.

“It’s going to be cutting edge. It’s going to be a very unique future here at Virginia Historic Landmark, 29 Diner,” he said. The Virginia Board of Historic Resources registered the restaurant as a Virginia Historic Landmark in 1992, when it was called Tastee 29 Diner. Wood is the seventh owner of the restaurant.

He’s removing two seats to provide wheelchair accessibility and hopes to get county approval to add outdoor seating behind the building. Employees will receive a living wage and health care and education benefits, he added.

The son of a firefighter and former Rep. John Dingell’s (D-Mich.) chief of staff, Wood said in a 2020 Competitive Enterprise Institute documentary over dinner he feels public service is in his blood. On the restaurant’s ‘About’ webpage, he wrote, “We strive to do what we can to support great people and great causes. From local elementary schools and sports teams to U.S. military and veterans at across the country, we look forward to sharing our support through fundraising and through our actions.

One of these actions is to support the Feeding Fairfax 5k, which will take place on May 14 in Chantilly. “The goal is to package over 50,000 free meals for our community at this event,” with proceeds going to programs supporting Food For Others, a local food bank, Wood said.

He also offers five $1,000 scholarships to students in GMU’s Junior ROTC program, and each year he brings a free barbecue buffet to six to 10 high school back-to-school events, where he also campaigns against bullying. The restaurant also raises funds for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Eric Monday Foundation, the ConnorStrong Foundation and other causes.

In the restaurant, Wood has jars inviting people to donate to his Be a Hero Feed a Hero campaign. He used the money from this to feed the residents at nine orphanages in Vietnam last month and is preparing to launch a 10-week effort on May 25 to feed Ukrainian refugees in Krakow, Poland.

He won’t be there all the time, though. He still has a lot to do here, including preparing for reopening.

“Out of the fire comes a kitchen that will serve literally 1 million free meals every year. We will follow that,” Wood said.

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