"It's an innovative departure," chirped an employee, "over-the-counter service; fast but the finest quality food."

"It's better looking and more sophiticated than a fast foods operation," said the architect. "It has more the look of a cafe than a cafeteria."

"We thought people would come to us from Bloomingdale's," said the director. "But it's the other way around. The Eatery is the thing."

The Eatery is the 700-seat dining complex at the new White Flint Mall on Rockville Pike. In three months of operation it has become one of the area's largest volume restaurant operations. Though not unique, it represents a change in shopping mall food service and signals a new development in merchandising fast foods.

Steve Leipsner, the 37-year-old, boyish-looking wonder who runds it, estimated that about 40,000 persons a week are invading The Eatery to buy food and drink (non-alcoholic) from one or more of 12 "stores," each with a different menu and staff.

The setting is attractive - lots of light wood and plants, low-keyed lighting and a series of platforms in the seating area that effectively break up what could be a mammoth cavern. The food is a pocket compendium of America's culinary pop culture. At opposite ends of what would be a row if it weren't shaped like a ragged L instead are a fried fish stand and a Chinese snack shop. In between are others, selling deli food, chicken and ribs, hot dogs, hamburgers, "natural" foods, desserts, Italian food, submarine-style, sandwiches, soups and - at Churchill's - a mish-mash loosely identified as continental.

While each stand has a name as different as its menu, they have a great deal in common. Leipsner will tell you with unstinted enthusiasm that there are no franchises at White Flint. Instead, the Lerner Corp. which built White Flint (and Tysons Corner and Wheaton Plaza and others) has built and is operating The Eatery itself.

"Originally the Lerners thought of leasing individuals stalls," Leipsner said. "But with the stores they were getting, this was going to be most highly fashioable mall in the area and maybe on the East Coast. They didn't want food and paper all over, so they decided to put the food all in one place. Then they realized that to have control of quality, standards and prices they would have to do the food service themselves."

The separate stand approach, each with its own kitchen, was adopted "so there would be excitement in the operation," Leipsner said. "We wanted the personnel of each one to be specialists in their area." (In fact, the manager of the Italian shop is a cook and former restaurant owner. Other managers, of whom three are women, have less imposing professional credentials.)

"Our only limitation was space," said Madis Valge, the architect. "They wanted something better looking and more sophisticated for White Flint. There was no compromise. We had excellent materials and excellent equipment. We went first class on everything."

The Eatery opened in early March, a day after construction was completed. "We had no shakedown time," said Leipsner. "For the first 10 days I'm glad the public put up with us. But we got better as we got into it. Now we're pleased with it. When people come it's not just a whim. Customers are coming back. It's become a gathering place like Hofburg's (in Silver Spring) or Duke's (Zeibert's). People like to be with other people and there's an excigement here."

Others are less enraptured, "We go because the kids like it," one man said apologetically. "The food is boring," said a woman who admitted she doesn't enjoy eating out south of New York City. "It's a good idea, but the food's not that good, it has no taste" said a restaurant professional. "The place could look more elegant and the kids working there could look and act sharper."

A series of visits at different hours by representatives of the Food Section confirmed some of these complaints.

"Basically it's a non-plastic atmosphere," said an employee. In fact, what she should have said is it is a better class of plastic. Forks, spoons, food containers - they are all made of plastic. Everything that isn't consumed except the tray is thrown away.

There are minor problems in the design: at [WORD ILLEGIBLE] hours customers mill about in a relatively narrow space between counter and seating area creating a danger of collisions and spillage. The layout of the shops and raised platform seating make it difficult to keep track of children if they wander. From the operator's point of view, the number of personnel required (over 500 Leipsner said) represents a staggering labor overhead. Having cash registers at each stand consumes workers' time. There are no tables for parties of more than four.

THis last is understandable in an operation of such volume where turnover is necessary. "We didn't want to make it terribly comfortable," Valge said, "though we did try to make it somewhat inviting and cozy." Though The Eatery is self-service efforts are made by the staff on the floor to carry and return trays and provide assistance.

As for the food, much of it tasted by The Post was bland and dull. Egg rolls, the largest-selling single item in The Eatery, were long on green, short on shrimp and tasteless. At a late-afternoon smapling, a knish was bland and heavy; quiche was soggy, corned beef was lean, plentiful and tired, ribs were dried out and so was a hamburger and a baked potato.

"If made-to-order fast food doesn't turn over, you're dead," said a restaurant man. "It won't keep without losing quality."

On a visit as the lunch service was working into full swing, the quiche was adequate, the corned beef was less lean but livelier, Italian meat sauce had been well prepared though the spaghetti texture indicated that it had been rewarmed. One evening, the Chinese tea was tasty, a salad from "The Body Shop" (the natural foods store) was freshly made and ample.

There are some definite winners among the selections: Freshly made onion rings, a yogurt and fruit drink called a "smoothie," the fried fillet of fish, the Louis Sherry ice creams, the kosher hot dog. The losers are somewhat greater in number. Among them: barbecued chicken tasting of paprika and grease, desserts of prefabricated quality topped with mountains of ersatz whipped cream ("they have no class," said the restaurant man), a sad impersonation of chili, a small, dull crab cake and a watery cuppucino.

Considering the effor tna dexpense Leipsner makes in purchasing quality products, what may be saddest are the foods that make no real impression. (His cold cuts for the subs come from Philadelphia, frozen yogurt toppings are imported from Florida, the potatoes are from Brooklyn.) Almost everything, he says with pride, is prepared from scratch on the premises. Only two microwave ovens are in use and there is a computer on hand to assist in ordering and production decisions. A computer-ordered buzzer warns a cook when it is time to remove food from the deep-fat frier.

Nonetheless, the ribs - even hot - lack flavor. The torpedo sub needed oil ande ven the "hot" peppers were bland. Steak fries were undersalted and a zucchini casserole was badly oversalted. The minced barbecue was without character, as was a "health salad." Souvlaki is made with beef instead of lamb because "Americans aren't ready for lamb." The soups at Pot au Fou were over-thickened, a Napoleon was filled with pudding-paste.

Leipsner talks about this "multi-menu concept" being right for today's taste in dining out. He talks of careful supervision and trianing, but in almost the same breath is describing an expansion of The Loft (a restaurant a floor above The Eatery) and beginning party platter catering service. He feels customers are responding to the large portions and "very reasonable" prices that one does find. "We are profit oriented, but it is not our main concern," he says, knowing full well few in any of his competitors can make that claim.

Yet the feeling persists that The Eatery could be better and some even think it will have to get better if it is to do the 50,000-person weekly business projections indicate.

"If food is different and better, that's fine," said the restaurant man. "But if it's just different, watch out. There is a need there for more attention to detail. People will go someplace for novelty or even for a bargain, but in the end they go to eat. There has to be consistant quality, too."