NOT LONG ago, I was delegated to look after the food for an office staff party. About 350 to 400 people would attend and the budget was $425. The food committee's first decision was a vote against the usual tired trays of tasteless bologna, indifferent salami, oily American cheese, watery roast beef and sour cole slaw. We wanted a class act and decided that good cheeses, fresh fruits and crispy crackers for a dollar-plus a head would be better than boring deli meats.

As it happened, with some advance planning and a bit of shopping around, we managed to put together a lavish and rather splendid buffet at a cost of $394.67, including plastic wrap, foil and paper doilies for some of the trays. The people in charge of liquor, with their own budget, were delighted to use the $30.33 we turned back to the kitty.

About a week in advance of the party last December, we ordered 20 pounds of fresh, aromatic, not too liverish pate de campagne from Francois at the Georgetown Market's Boucherie Francaise ($98.01). Because of the quantity of the fact that we would do the slicing ourselves, Francois gave us a 10 percent discount, much appreciated since he didn't know me from Adam. We presented the pate on trays garnished with pale Boston lettuce leaves ($1.94) and lovely sour French cornichon pickles ($12.95). To accompany the pate we had 10 of the Bread Oven's baguettes ($8), baked to order that morning. We sliced the bread only 15 minutes before the party to keep it from drying out.

The five pounds of Genoa salami ($18.60), sliced very thin, came from the Safeway. This we set out in overlapping rows on trays which we decorated with vinegary little Italian Tuscan peppers (Progresso, $1.78), parsley sprigs (45 cents), shiny black Calamatas olives and cracked green olives in oil and brine ($9.95 for 5 jars). The Greek olives were Krinos, available almost anywhere. It paid to comparison shop, however, since the variations in price were considerable. Our great indulgence was three trays of watercress sandwiches, 100 to the tray, from Ridgewell's ($63). Even people who view watercress as a mystery and therefore something not to be tasted, liked the way the platters looked and the feeling that something so special had been done for them.

By buying the cheeses at Potomac Butter & Egg, a quasi-wholesale outlet in Southwest (open from the crack of dawn until 2:30 p.m.), we spent a spectacularly low $87.42 for: nutty imported Swiss (in a nine-pound chunk), Joan of Arc brie (two wheels weighing over two pounds each), two kinds of Gourmandise (walnut and kirsch, and particularly good with fruit, about eight pounds in all), havarti (almost five pounds) and, since we were concerned about less sophisticated taste buds, a not-too-sharp Wisconsin cheddar (about 10 pounds). Potomac Butter & Egg only sells cheese in chunks and in varying quantity. The cheeses we surrounded with about 10 pounds of black, red and white grapes ($16.13) which had been cut into tiny bunches the day before. Very pretty, the alternating colors.

We also decided on only quality crackers: Bremner Wafers (two large tins, $7.18), Stoned Wheat Thins (nine packages, $8.91), Jacobs Cheese Biscuits (five boxes, $3.75) and Jacobs Water Crackers (five boxes, $3.75). bI misjudged the amount -- we could have done with half as many.We also got three huge boxes of potato chips ($4.77). For sweet teeth and because we were having a punch, we ordered 10 pounds of freshly made cookies from Avignone Freres ($44.60). There was no problem with any of these being leftover.

The trick in making the presentation work within our budget was knowing where to go to find both quality and price. We shopped the Safeway (at Chevy Chase Circle), Westbard Giant, Chevy Chase Lake Supermarket, Georgetown Market, Potomac Butter Egg and Avignone Freres. We bought the cheeses on Monday (the party was Friday) and left the brie out to ripen.

The morning of the party one of your committees picked up the watercress sandwiches, another helper got the cookies and the bread and I stopped by for the Genoa salami and the pate. Five or six of us spent the rest of the morning slicing, arranging and generally making the food look good.

We had enough refrigerator space for the pate and plenty of plastic wrap and foil ($3.48) to make sure that nothing dried out.

Because much of the food would be exotic to some, we labeled each tray, using charming identification tags designed by one of the staff that were attached to plastic stirrers. At 3 o'clock, a half hour before the party began, we set up three serving areas, which worked admirably to keep the crush from occurring. The trays were very inviting and the labels much appreciated.

When I left, a little after 6, the only thing remaining in quantity was the rather innocuous Cheddar cheese (and crackers, lots of crackers).

Were I to do this party again, I would get, in lieu of the 10 pounds of Wisconsin cheddar, an extra Brie and a five-pound piece of Vermont cheddar, I would order seven rather than 10 baguettes and, of course, buy fewer crackers.

For half as many people I would altogether eliminate any cheddar as well as the walnut gourmandise. I would put out only half the Swiss (and buy the remainder of the piece for myself). I might even eliminate the havarti, although it is liked by many. I would halve the pate order and get three pounds of Genos salami. I would get almost as many grapes, they went quickly -- perhaps 15 pounds, two trays of watercress sandwiches, half as many olives and Tuscan peppers but, because I am addicted to them myself, the same amount of cornichons.

Had we gone for what a supermarket chain calls DELIcious Party Trays, we would have spent a minimimum of $2 a person for the most ordinary, nitrite-cured meats and up to $3 a head for slightly more rarified cold cuts. This price would not have included bread and many of the extras we had that gave the food tables their distinction.

Best of all, in these days of digustingly high food prices, we managed to get so much for so little.

Note: Items were purchased in December. Today's prices may vary .