It may resemble a well-worn cafeteria, but for local fans of bluegrass and folk music, the Birchmere in Alexandria is a cherished home away from home -- at least for now.

In a suit filed recently in Circuit Court, the owner of the building leased by the nationally known club has asked that the Birchmere vacate the premises and pay what he claims is more than $7,000 in back rent and penalties. Motions are scheduled to be filed in the case today.

The Birchmere, founded by Gary H. Oelze more than 21 years ago, may become a victim of its own success and the ongoing rejuvenation of its Arlandria neighborhood.

Krishnan Suthanthiran, a local businessman who owns stock in The Birchmere Bluegrass Inc. and who last December purchased the building that the club occupies, wants to raise the rent, partly because the market value of the Mount Vernon Avenue property has increased in recent years.

Sheldon Lynn, Alexandria's planning and community development director, said "there's no question" that the Arlandria area has turned around and that its revitalization will result in rent increases for residents and businesses, possibly forcing some to leave.

Representatives of the Birchmere and some local officials say the 300-seat nightspot contributed to the neighborhood's gradual turnaround.

When the Birchmere's original location in a South Arlington shopping center was razed six years ago, the club moved to the largely residential Arlandria section of north Alexandria, where the neighborhood was on the skids and inexpensive commercial space was available.

Since then, the area has taken a slow turn for the better. Nearby apartments are being renovated and new businesses have moved in.

Oelze, who still owns the Birchmere, and others say the arrival of the club in 1981 helped renew interest in the area. "I helped revitalize that area," Oelze said, noting that he renovated his own building. "I brought in 1,500 people or more each week. The city knows I helped."

The Birchmere "has been a very definite factor," said Mayor James P. Moran Jr., who encouraged the club to relocate in Alexandria seven years ago.

"When you have people on the sidewalk, when there's activity there, with people of all income levels, it gives more confidence to people to patronize the stores there," he added. "Before the Birchmere, there wasn't much there."

Robert J. Test, a lawyer representing Suthanthiran, acknowledged the cultural success of the Birchmere and its standing in the neighborhood.

However, he said, the suit "is not a question of whether or not people like the Birchmere. It's a matter of whether or not {the owners of the club} are making the right business decisions. If it takes a rent subsidy to make the business work, then they will have to find another landlord."

Oelze said that early last year he agreed with the previous owner to a $500 monthly rent increase as part of a five-year extension of his lease. The increase to $3,500 a month was to apply for two or three years, he said. The lease contains a rent ceiling of $4,500 for the term of the extension.

The validity of the extension is being challenged by Suthanthiran, who currently receives $3,500 a month in rent from the Birchmere.

Oelze said that in negotiating the original lease he insisted that the extension and a rent ceiling be included because he anticipated that neighborhood improvements would drive up area rents.

Test said he was surprised by the club's reluctance to accept what he described as a reasonable rent increase for a property with a market value "a good deal more than $4,500 a month," the ceiling set by the lease. "If {Oelze} had to go somewhere else, he could be paying seven or eight or nine thousand a month," Test said. He added that he turned to the courts because Oelze refused to negotiate a new rent schedule in good faith.

"We just want to get everybody in the same room at the same time with the same papers, so we can get it resolved and move on," Test said.

Suthanthiran, the owner of Best Industries, a cancer research laboratory in Springfield, declined to comment on the case.

What would normally be dismissed as a routine landlord-tenant squabble has attracted unusual attention because the Birchmere is one of the few bluegrass music clubs in the area and has gained a national reputation for booking top-notch talent.

Although the club made its name hosting bluegrass musicians, it has branched out in recent years into all kinds of contemporary acoustic music. Among the performers who have appeared at the Birchmere are Bill Monroe, the Country Gentlemen, Jonathan Edwards, Doc Watson, Pure Prairie League and -- every Thursday -- The Seldom Scene.

"For a long while there was a rash of clubs, but this is the only one that survived," said John Duffey, a member of The Seldom Scene and vice president of the Birchmere's board of directors. "And it's a great place to play."

Although the music doesn't start until 8:30 p.m., the doors open around 7 p.m., and it's not unusual to find fans queued up so they can claim the best of the first-come, first-served seats.

On any given night the crowd includes youngsters, old-timers, gray-suited yuppies and hardhat construction workers. During the summer, Oelze said, Japanese tour groups drop by for an evening of original American music.

"I've been running the Birchmere for 21 years," said Oelze, "and I fully expect to run it another 21 years."