Everything but chiggers Food: Minnesota-based Rainforest Cafe Inc. plans to open one of its themed restaurants in Towson Town Center.

June 12, 1998|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

Wild things are about to happen in Towson.

Rainforest Cafe -- a jungle-themed restaurant with simulated thunderstorms, talking trees, animated crocodiles and live parrots -- is moving forward with plans to open its first location in Maryland at Towson Town Center.

The Minnesota-based chain, with 15 restaurants in the United States and three in other countries, joins other themed restaurants, such as Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Cafe and ESPN Zone, that are making their way into the Baltimore area.

"I think this is really a comparable undertaking, except it's coming to Baltimore County," said Charles E. Brooks, a Towson attorney who represented Rainforest at a liquor board hearing this week.

The venture, which Brooks said would involve $7 million in improvements and animatronics by Rainforest at Towson Town Center, promises to bolster the county seat's positioning of itself as a destination location with movies, shopping and restaurants.

"It will continue the theme I have had, to bring more entertainment into Towson," said Douglas B. Riley, a Republican county councilman from Towson.

Susan DiLonardo, executive director of the Towson Business Association, said, "We are always excited when a new business is coming to Towson, and especially one that offers something a little different and unique."

For the past several years, Towson has been in the midst of a transformation as the suburban town seeks to re-invent itself.

The county and state have poured $4.3 million into a fancy streetscape project with brick sidewalks to attract visitors and a traffic roundabout for the more than 28,000 vehicles that slog through the area each day.

Also, the redevelopment of the former Hutzler's department store -- for years a derelict presence in Towson -- is progressing, with construction of a Barnes & Noble book and music store that is expected to open in about four months. Called Towson Circle, the $20 million project is a joint venture by Towson-based Heritage Properties Inc. and Cordish Co. of Baltimore.

David Rhodes, president of Heritage, who is seeking other tenants for the 110,000-square-foot building, welcomes the addition of a major restaurant at the nearby mall.

"I think it's a great theme restaurant," he said of Rainforest. "The more critical mass we get with diverse food offerings, the better for Towson as a whole."

Melting Pot on the way, too

Another theme restaurant, the Melting Pot, is coming to Towson in the 400 block of York Road. Jeffrey L. Nichols and John N. Fox, who have operated a Melting Pot in Wilmington, Del., for four years, hope to have the dinner-only restaurant, which specializes in fondue cuisine, in operation by the end of July.

Rainforest Cafe is the brainchild of marketing entrepreneur Steve Schussler, who turned his suburban Minneapolis home into a jungle, complete with a volcano, in an effort to convince investors that the concept would work, Golden said.

The first Rainforest opened at the Mall of America in Minnesota in 1994, followed by others around the country and in London, Cancun, Mexico, and Mexico City. More are planned, including in Asia, said Jean Golden, director of public relations and marketing for Rainforest.

Chicken monsoon, anyone?

Amid faux rainbows, shooting stars and fish in saltwater aquariums, the restaurant offers such entrees as chicken monsoon, a grilled Cajun chicken breast with shrimp; seafood Galapagos, featuring sauteed shrimp; salmon and swordfish on linguine; and Jamaica, me crazy, blackened pork chops with spicy red beans and rice.

Rainforest officials say they chose Towson Town Center

because of demographics.

The complex attracts 11 million visitors annually, according to statistics presented by Brooks at Monday's liquor board hearing. Rainforest was granted a liquor license transfer from the defunct Saguaro's restaurant in Towson.

"It's a fantastic mall," said Golden. "It has strong anchor tenants and other tenants. It has great mall management."

She declined to discuss specifics about the Towson location because a lease is being negotiated. But the company's Web site -- www.rainforestcafe.com -- lists Towson Town Center among its expansion sites.

Brooks said Rainforest is looking at the second floor of Towson Town Center. Store employees at the mall say the restaurant is expected to move into an area on the west side of the center that Gordon's Booksellers is vacating in August.

The elaborate transformation of the space into a Rainforest Cafe is expected to take several months. An opening anticipated early next year, Brooks said.

Tom Lehner of Bowleys Quarters and his wife, Rosemarie, recently took their two sons, ages 3 and 6, to the Rainforest Cafe at Tysons Corner mall in McLean, Va. They said the experience was worth the trip but that patrons -- who included prom-going teen-agers the night they went -- should expect noise and long lines.

tTC "It's real entertaining. It's worth going there," said Mr. Lehner, who waited 1 1/2 hours for a table. "I could take my kids and not worry about them screaming."

Pub Date: 6/12/98

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