Fast, fresh food on a Bordeaux stage

March debuts the first of 80 US restaurants

Lights! Food! Action!

March, a new 600-seat Boston restaurant with a European marketplace motif, is the latest addition to dining-as-entertainment in America.

You might call it a slice of faux brie in Beantown. A fusion of ambiance and aroma. The restaurant industry calls it "eatertainment."

"March is like a chaotic movie," says Thomas Sthr, the restaurant's manager. "It's like a food theater."

Indeed, everything here is a stage set: A bench sits shaded by an artificial tree; dried herbs and garlic dangle from rafters; gaily painted awning-covered carts clutter the flagstone-floored pathway. Then there are the fresh props: bins of baguettes, trays of fruit-laden tarts, baskets of produce, and bundles of flowers.

There are 14 different food stations, where you place your order and watch your chef perform from his or her distinct menu. One serves Rsti, Swiss hash browns ($2.75), another whole Cornish game hen ($8.99), another preps a half Maine lobster ($5.99). There's green salad ($2.50 to $5), brick-oven pizza, kabobs, pasta, sushi, Swiss sausages, and on and on.

There are no servers. Take your tray and find a seat in the European ambiance you want: the bistro, styled after Parisian taverns, the auberge with French country inn flavor; the locanda which is fashioned after an Italian country-side eatery, and the patio.

March stands squarely at the intersection of a traditional European marketplace and modern American marketing. Here fresh food is served with a side order of pandemonium.

The Swiss food-retailing giant Mvenpick, along with a Canadian partner, recently made their first foray into the US market at Boston's Prudential Center. This spring, Mvenpick will open a 1,000-seat restaurant at the World Trade Center in New York. Also targeted are Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, and Seattle.

The plan is to open 80 US locations by 2005 - including Marchlinos, European fast food, and Take me! March, which offers a selection of prepared foods as well as meat, fish, cheese, and produce.

But can March succeed in America, the land of the hamburger joint?

The theme restaurant business is now a crowded market. Hard Rock Cafe got its start in 1971 when Peter Morton and Isaac Tigrett opened a Tennessee-style restaurant bringing hamburgers and rock 'n' roll artifacts to London.

Since then, there have been many imitators each with a distinct decor. Despite weak profits, the Rainforest Cafe opened its 22nd outlet last week in Overland Park, Kan. Others such as The Harley-Davidson Cafe, Dive!, the Fashion Cafe, ESPN Zone are expanding into new cities. Mars 2112, where diners take a flying saucer to their table at a restaurant below the surface of Mars, has expansion plans.

But the huge capital costs and low returns are taking a toll on the eatertainment industry.

The growth of Planet Hollywood, where diners can ogle Sylvester Stallone's Rambo loincloth, has slowed to a crawl. Its stock value has plunged from $32 two years ago to less than $4.

But Mr. Sthr says March's emphasis on fresh ingredients will distinguish it from the pack. There is no back-room storage or freezer. The produce is bought on a daily basis from local markets.

"We buy just as much as we can use every day," Strh says. "At the end of the day we give the breads and anything that's left to the customers and the rest goes to a food bank."

And Mvenpick has a long track record. Over the past 50 years, the company has cooked up a reputation for fresh food in 270 locations worldwide.

But some diners say March is overpriced and a sensory overload. They cringe at the 11 percent surcharge (for clean-up service) on each bill. An Italian friend says the piped in music is "20 years old and 10,000 miles off target."

And while March might suit a solitary diner, dining with a group has its drawbacks. Even if each one goes to the same food station, the one who orders first will have to wait for others to join him. Remember, food is individually prepared when ordered.

Still, initial reactions are generally favorable. "Look," says lunch-time visitor Robin Gleason, motioning to baskets stacked with red, yellow, and green peppers arranged in a stoplight configuration. "What I like about this place is the ambiance. I wish I had a camera."

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