After more than eight years selling sushi and Asian food in the food court at 3 Bethesda Metro Center, Deok Su Kim closed his stand last week to make way for a major renovation of the space and more upscale restaurants.
Meridian Group of Bethesda and its partners, Blackstone Real Estate Advisors of New York, plan to renovate and turn the almost 19,000-square-foot food court into a "self-service-style restaurant" that Soho Cafe and Market of Washington will operate.
Merchants have gradually left the food court in the last few months as their leases have expired, Meridian management officials said.
Kim's Sushi Garden was the last food stand in the building, which sits next to the Bethesda Metro station.
In replacing the existing food court, which looks similar to those found in most suburban malls, Soho will provide a deli featuring food stations that serve hot and cold entrees, salads and pizza. It also will have a small convenience store. The concept is similar to Soho's restaurants in downtown Washington.
The other half of the existing food court will become a "white tablecloth, Cafe Asia concept," Meridian officials said. Also run by Soho, it will be open for lunch and dinner and will have a bar.
The area outside the food court will have new landscaping, fountains and outdoor seating covered with a trellis.
Construction is to start soon and will be finished within the next year.
"It's going to be an exciting new use with a great new tenant," said David Cheek, president of Meridian Group. "It should be a terrific amenity for people who work in the area and visit. Soho's food concept is one that is popular and attracts people from support staff to CEOs and law partners."
Meridian, which also owns the Hyatt Regency Bethesda hotel next to the food court and the 3 Bethesda Metro Center office building, is renovating the office building's lobby and first floor.
Inside the Hyatt, at Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road, the Plaza Cafe restaurant run by the hotel will be replaced with the Daily Grill, which will open this fall.
Meridian said it is spending an estimated $10 million on the food court and lobby renovations.
The new look comes as Bethesda has undergone changes in the last few years, with newer restaurants along Bethesda Row, only a few blocks from Meridian's property. As Bethesda has aged, developers have renovated buildings and made retail areas more inviting to pedestrians with wider sidewalks and landscaping.
"It's been a long time in the planning stages," Cheek said of the renovation project. "We bought [the property] three years ago, and it's now time to upgrade it. It's roughly 20 years old."
But the closing of the existing food court is a disappointment to Kim and some other vendors there.
"I've lost a lot of money here after putting in some $80,000 into this place," said Kim. He took a job at a Japanese restaurant in Gaithersburg, where he lives, to supplement his family's income.
"It's been very bad for me, and I didn't want to leave there," he said. He complained that the management gradually stopped renewing food vendors' leases in the food court.
"There used to be 14 restaurants here. Now there are only two," Kim said last week.
The lights were out at a nearby Burger King stand. The signs for pizza by the slice at Vittorio's Pizza & Pasta were still up at one stand, but Vittorio's counters were empty, and the chairs and tables in the eating areas were stacked.
"We haven't been seeing any more of our customers," said Mirea Lee as she rolled seaweed and fish together for the few stragglers who were still buying from the stand last week.
"They say they'll bring in new restaurants, but it's pushing us out."