Commerce Bank, the aggressive New Jersey institution that promises 200 branches in the Washington area, opened the first of them on Friday, and a competitor took up the challenge on the streets of Dupont Circle.

The opening of its branch -- or "store," as Commerce calls it -- was accompanied by something of a street fair: free hot dogs, a caricaturist, a stilt walker, music, and drawings for cash and a trip to Paris. Such carnival-style branch openings are the norm for Commerce, which works to differentiate the bank from its more traditional competitors. Commerce competes primarily through hyper-friendly staff, a variety of free services and extended hours.

Commerce positioned sign carriers on Connecticut Avenue, holding placards that said "Honk for Free Coin Counting" and "Honk for No ATM Fees."

Right across the street, representatives of another new entrant in the local market, PNC Bank, held up signs for drivers going in the opposite direction: "Dare to compare your bank to ours."

Pittsburgh-based PNC, which bought Riggs Bank in May and has 54 branches in the region, has offered some of its Washington customers the free use of other banks' ATMs. PNC plans to open 30 branches in the next three years.

-- Margaret Webb Pressler and Terence O'Hara

Commerce Bank opens its DuPont Circle branch with a party. Entertainment included stilt walker Marc Rosenkoetter, left, and musician Lenny Rogers.A PNC Bank sign challenges drivers in DuPont Circle across the street from the newly opened Commerce Bank branch.