A California-based chain will open a restaurant Friday in the Columbia lakefront building once used to showcase the new town's model home plans and amenities.
Fresh Choice, which bills itself as an "upscale, self-service-style restaurant" with soup, salad and pasta bars, is expected to hire at least 60 employees, said Stephen Robinson, general manager of the restaurant.
The opening is part of the Rouse Co.'s plans to enliven downtown Columbia by bringing restaurants to the area around Lake Kittamaqundi, officials said.
"Fresh Choice is another restaurant opportunity that is certainly something people will enjoy," said Cathy Leickteig, vice president and director of corporate public affairs for Rouse. "It's like retailing: When you have lots of good shops in one area, they can draw in crowds."
Managers said they expect to serve more than 350 people during weekday lunch hours and 800 to 1,200 customers on weekend days. The restaurant seats about 250 people inside and 40 on an outside patio.
The waterfront spot, the Rouse Co.'s former Exhibit Center, is a "dream location" for the restaurant, which appeals to a "younger, upwardly mobile-type of crowd that's found in this area," Mr. Robinson said.
"We are a totally different concept of restaurant than anybody else in this area," he said. "Clyde's is an institution here, and I don't think we'll take away from any of the other business in this area.
"Many people that don't often come down here will start to," Mr. Robinson said. "We'll add a little touch of variety."
Fresh Choice will occupy about 65,000 square feet on the bottom floor of the former Exhibit Center, which opened in 1967 -- the year Columbia's first residents moved in -- to promote the new homes in the area.
The Exhibit Center closed in December 1989, when the Rouse Co. decided it was no longer needed. The last tenant, O'Conor, Piper & Flynn Realtors, moved out in December 1994, and the building has remained vacant.
The building has undergone reconstruction over the past four months to turn it from offices into a restaurant. The Rouse Co. is looking for two to three additional restaurants for the remainder of the building, which includes 25,000 square feet on the bottom floor and 10,000 square feet on the upper level.
"We hope to make it a restaurant building," Ms. Leickteig said. "People are out and the location has been identified by the lake, which attracts people. It's a destination."
Local community and business leaders say the restaurant's opening is an important step toward revitalizing the lakefront area, which many see as developing too slowly.
"When we get as much action on the lakeside as there is on the mall, then we'll have a better downtown area," said Dick Lewis, a member of the former Downtown Work Group, a now-defunct business group. "Fresh Choice will help continue the efforts to develop that area."
Donna Rice, chairwoman of the Town Center Village Board, said there is "a void" in business activity at the lakefront area.
"There's something missing from the downtown Columbia area that makes it an exciting place to be," she said.
Fresh Choice will offer a range of self-service foods, including baked potatoes, low-fat and nonfat muffins, breads, gourmet pastas, desserts and a 90-foot salad bar.
Prices for the buffet range from $4.95 for lunch to $7.25 for dinner. The restaurant will be open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Lunch will be served from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.
The 8-year-old Santa Clara, Calif.-based chain has two restaurants in Virginia, one in the Pentagon Center mall in Arlington, which opened in November, and another in Fairfax, which opened in April.
The chain plans to open more restaurants in the Baltimore-Virginia-Washington area officials said.