BRADENTON -- Chinese food is a Christmas Day favorite for people who don't want to stay home and slave over a hot stove. So when Michael Dong moved his family's Grand Buffet from its Cortez Road home of 15 years to a location on 14th Street in time for a Christmas Eve opening, he wanted to make sure the restaurant's fans found their way down the road.
That's why his uncle spent the Christmas holiday sitting in front of Grand Buffet's old location holding a sign with the new address.
"You can have great friends, but family will always be there for you," said Dong, Grand Buffet's manager and part owner.
The sign gambit and no doubt a fair bit of curiosity on the part of Grand Buffet's regular clientele made for a very merry Christmas in the restaurant's new digs in The Fountains shopping center at 4848 14th St. W.
Dong said about 1,000 people dropped in for Christmas lunch and dinner.
While they paid 50 cents more for the buffet than at the previous location, they received more. The restaurant has added a sushi chef, a to-order hibachi grill station and more selections on multiple hot food, salad and dessert stations.
On the buffet, all the classics are there, including sweet and sour chicken, chicken and pork fried rice, moo shu shrimp and egg foo young. Less adventurous diners and children can get a slice of pizza from an American-themed buffet line, while fans of Anthony Bourdain can find surprise in an octopus salad.
The decor in the 10,400-square-foot restaurant is all new. A bubbling fish pond filled with 100 koi greets diners as they enter Grand Buffet, while walls and ceilings are colorfully painted and illuminated with LED lights.
Dong himself is part of the ambiance, welcoming repeat customers by their first names and conversing in multiple languages. Lately he's been learning Spanish to build relationships with his growing Hispanic clientele.
Betty and John Wiersma of Bradenton have been eating at Grand Buffet for years. The couple, who are on a first-name basis with Dong, had lunch at the res
taurant on the day after Christmas. They had their favorites -- honey chicken, baked fish and zucchini -- but were also pleased to see that their choice of selections had grown.
"It's a lot bigger and prettier," Betty Wiersma said.
Dong, who has opened seven Chinese restaurants and buffets in Florida since getting into the restaurant business at age 21 in 1997, said he is putting all his attention into Grand Buffet. He moved the restaurant when the owner of its former location at Lakewood Plaza began to redevelop the mall property. After signing on as the first anchor at The Fountains, he put more than $400,000 into renovating a former Stacey's Buffet space.
The restaurant is designed as an open concept, offering booth and table seating. It also features a large, separate dining room that can be used for banquets.
Dong said he and his staff of 15 employees are focused on running a continuously fresh buffet operation that also caters to the individual needs of customers. If a diner cannot find a menu offering that Grand Buffet could create with ingredients on hand, Dong said he will do custom orders on request.
"We want to give our customers a great atmosphere," he said.
There is pressure to keep standards high. More than a dozen Chinese and buffet restaurants are near Grand Buffet's new location. Dong said he hopes that diverse menu offerings and attractive decor will keep his establishment high on diners' lists.
"We want to be the unique one," he said.
Buffet lunches at Grand Buffet start at $7.99, while dinner comes in at $10.99 on weekdays and $11.59 on weekends. Children under 11 eat for $5 off those prices.
Grand Buffet also has an extensive menu of dishes for sit-down dining for those who prefer to be served.
A grand opening event is scheduled for Jan. 2 between 4 and 6 p.m. The event will feature martial arts demonstrations and a Chinese lion dance.
The restaurant is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. On Fridays and Saturdays, dining hours are extended to 10:30 p.m. For information, call the restaurant at 941-752-3388.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.