Conversations overheard at tiny tables outdoors:

"See that guy who just walked by? I once had such a crush on him." So said one woman to another while picking at salade Nicoise in the enclosed cafe at Au Pied de Cochon.

"Oh, private industry is so despicable." Wisdom over white wine and cheese plate at a table at Kramerbooks.

"Personally, I think he just likes domineering woman." From a woman eating a hamburger on a Roy Rogers' patio.

When sipping and munching alfresco, gossip becomes juicier, words of endearment far more tender and political discussions eminently more animated. It's partly logistical: you're sitting with a friend or two at a postage-stamp-size table, or sharing a blanket thrown on the ground, or sitting side by side on a park bench.

There's a certain closeness to eating outside.

We put up with insects, humidity, grit, rain and crowds to be able to do it. Drinking outdoors makes flat beer acceptable and hot dogs palatable; dining en plein ari adds zest to alfalfa sprouts.

Atmosphere plays a big role. Secluded spots under a springtime sky may not require a picnic that looks like a spread for a "Diamonds Are Forever" ad, but they send a romantic message to your companion.

Parks with picnic tables and grills -- which are often crowded on summer weekends -- are for the less adventurous, the more platonic or, with all those athletic facilities around, at least the more energetic.

Then there's licking ice cream cones while strolling in Georgetown, watching the dulcimer players and guitarists sing for their supper.

The lunchtime crowd fills up postage-stamp-size squares, sharing park benches with shopping-bag ladies or sitting on the grass with carry-out sandwiches and frozen yogurt. At Farragut Square one day recently, a little eavesdropping revealed a lot of office back-stabbing.

Think small; an apple from one of the fruit vendors on K Street.

Or think big: a breakfast at dawn, champagne and horsedrawn carriages, formal attire and a delicate string quartet. Outdoors. It can be done. And you won't . be the first: A dozen people staged a birthday breakfast alfresco six years ago -- in front of the Lincoln Memorial, no less.

As the old cliche goes, where you stand depends on where you sit. And here are some suggestions of places and ways to sit through the season of outdoor cuisine. SIDEWALK CAFES There are literally scores around Washington. Not surprisingly, the most fertile cafe neighborhoods -- like Dupont Circle, Georgetown and around 19th and M Streets -- are those that have the most restaurants and bars of all kinds. But places that range from French-ified locales for the post-Perrier set to Arby's are rolling out their awnings and setting up wrought-iron tables, as much harbingers of spring as anything else. In 20 years the number of cafes around Washington has grown from none to scores. Here's just a sampling: KRAMERBOOKS -- Kramer's, a combination cafe and bookstore, is leaning more towards its cafe persona these days. It's almost always crowded. The food is quiche-and-salad light, with a drink menu that includes cappucino, expresso and the like. People are often heard complaining that they find Kramer's a pick-up joint masquerading as something intellectual, or that they don't like the food smell that permeates the book racks: these same people are often the ones waiting in line for a table. Hours: 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. weekdays, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. weekends. 1517 Connecticut Avenue NW. 387-1462. If the line's too long for you, try the CAFE RONDO or the GOLDEN TEMPLE which are right next door.

COLUMBIA STATION -- In Adams-Morgan. Inside, live musical entertainment; outside, the all day-all night entertainment on Columbia Road. A full-fledged bar, which also serves sandwiches, soup and chili. Lunch and dinner specials are more elaborate. One recent Sunday brunchtime, the outdoor eaters had an orchestra seat for an accident between a chartreuse Volkswagen and a taxi. Hours: 11:30 to 2:15 a.m., although the kitchen is only open for lunch from 11:30 to 3 and for dinner from 5 to 10. 1838 Columbia Road NW. Call 667-2990. FAISUDA'S -- An Indian restaurant perched at a Silver Spring intersection, Faisuda's has planted trees outside to act as a noise-and-grit screen. "It's contagious," said Rehana Khan, the owner. "One table gets filled outside, and suddenly they all are." One popular Indian drink is lassi, which is yogurt and honey and ice. Hours: 11:30 to 3 for lunch, 5 to 10 for dinner. 8801 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. 588-9552. MAN IN THE GREEN HAT -- Outdoor eating on Capitol Hill. Full dinners are served outside, and the restaurant tries to change the menu every couple of months. Usually there's a roast and seafood of the day. Baking is done there. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. weekdays, 11:30 to 3 a.m. weekends. In the afternoon from 2:30 to 5:30, the kitchen is closed. 301 Massachusetts Avenue NE. 546-5900. Across Third Street, also on Massachusetts, you can sit outdoors at LA BRASSERIE. McDONALD'S -- There's a McDonald's here and a McDonald's there but, according to a company spokesman, the McDonald's on East-West Highway in Bethesda is the only one around here with outdoor tables. A fine spot if you don't mind the sight and sound of non-stop traffic along with your Big Mac. What else to say? You probably know the menu already, and, if you don't, you'll never go there anyhow. Hours: 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 7 to 1 Friday and Saturday. 4500 East-West Highway. TWO NINETEEN -- Sit at one of the tables and get a perspective on Old Town, Alexandria. You can start the day with what is oddly called a "gentleman's breakfast" (pastry and coffee). A full lunch is served outdoors, but in the evening, it's cocktails and appetizers. Hours: 9 to midnight. 219 King Street, Alexandria. Call 549-1141. It's next to the Alexandria Visitor's Center, so you could load up on brochures for entertaining Aunt theo this summer. OTHER OUTDOOR PERSPECTIVES Then there are the outdoor eateries whose drawing point is simply that they're not wedged into the sidewalk. Count in courtyards and gardens, raised terraces and rooftops.Here are just a few: HOTEL WASHINGTON -- The rooftop terrace gives a grand view of Washington and will open on Mother's Day, May 11. Go right after work only if you don't mind a little rain: a delicate artificial rain sprinkles on awnings. It's turned off as night falls or if it's too windy. Then it's you, the skyline and a cocktail. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Fifteenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Call 638-5900. MISTER SMITH'S -- This one is of the garden variety. There's a large one in the back of the restaurant, to be exact, that's partially enclosed, and hidden completely from what's happening on M Street. The specialty is hamburgers, of which there are 12 species. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. 3104 Street NW. Call 333-3104. PATIO CAFE -- The patio is out back, dwarfed by the side of Miller's Furniture Store. But you won't feel walled in: the effect is one of being safely tucked into a little spot of green. Flowers and hanging platns abound. You have a choice of drinks from the Patio bar or an ice cream concoction from the Ice Cream Parlor, which is next door and run by the same folks. Hours: 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday. t408 Eighth Street SE. Call 546-7666. TABARD INN -- The Tabard Inn is a place to relax on a quiet street right off the Connecticut Avenue chaos. The European-style hotel has a restaurant and garden out back, in which are planted herbs the chef uses. The emphasis is on fresh fruit and vegetables, and the menu proudly proclaims that the meat is nitrate free. Aioli, a garlic dip, comes highly recommended. Hours: 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. weekends. 1739 N Street NW. Call 785-1277. Right across the street, the IRON GATE INN also has a tranquil outdoor spot and serves Mid-Eastern fare. PICNIC IN A PARK Large groups may have a hard time park-picnicking this year: reservations for the facilities in many area parks are almost filled for summer weekends. But a group of two won't have any trouble, especially if your idea of a picnic is to stop at any spot that looks enticing. CARDEROCK PARK -- Carderock is right off the C&O Canal towpath, so it's a good stopping-off place if you're on a bike. There are trails and a ballfield. The park is known as one of the best rock-climbing places in the area. You'll have great respect for the sport if you sit for a while and watch one climber make his or her way up a sheer cliff. Take the George Washington Parkway on the Maryland side; the exit is marked "Carderock." Hours: Dawn to dusk. Call 299-3613. COSCA REGIONAL PARK -- Park regulations state that picnics should be confined to designated areas, but if you don't litter or picnic with 100 of your closest friends, you can choose a more isolated spot. The park is over 400 acres and has a lake. (Rent a rowboat or paddleboat in May.) If you can't bear to leave, then stay: there are 23 first-come camping sites, and the park ranger says the area rarely fills up. One caveat: cFrom Memorial Day to Labor Day, all Prince Georges County regional parks will slap a $5 parking fee on cars not from Prince Georges or Montgomery Counties. From D.C., take Branch Avenue to a right on Woodyard, then a left on Brandywine to Thrift Road in Clinton. Hours: 7:30 a.m. to dusk.Call 868-1397. ROCK CREEK PARK -- The choice is vast. There are 25 first-come, first-served spots that have grills and tables. A lot of folks hover around Peirce Mill and Art Barn, which at times seems almost like picnicking in a parking lot. You can fuel up at the Zoo or rent a horse or use the exercise parcourse at the foot of Calvert Street. To make group reservations, call 673-7647. RIVERBEND PARK -- Always less crowded than nearby Great Falls, the park has five miles of trails, including three along the river. It's open from dawn to dusk -- how about an early-morning breakfast outdoors one of these days? You can rent boats, fish or just sit on the deck of the visitor's center and look at the Potomac. Take the Georgetown Pike exit west from the Beltway, then a right onto Riverbend Road, then another right onto Jeffery Road. Call 759-9018. UPTON HILL -- Upton Hill, a 26-acre park, has been called an oasis next to a shopping center. The shopping center is Seven Corners, and the swimming pool, reflecting pools and golf course help make it an oasis. Lot of activity as you first enter (near the swimming pool, especially), but as you go down the hill from the entrance, it's quite peaceful. Call 241-1410. SQUARES AND CIRCLES -- You have an hour, it's a beautiful day, your office walls feel like they're caving in around you. Head for the nearest patch of green; breathe deeply but cautiously (all that car exhaust, you know). It's head-clearing.

Sellers of carnations and drug paraphernalia, vendors of fruit and half smokes, players of flutes and guitars (including one guy who's there sometimes in a tux) cluster around the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and K Street NW. Men hover at the Farragut subway stations, eating YWCA chocolate chip cookies and watching women. Up the street, Dupont Circle gets crowded with people gingerly sticking their feet in the fountain or playing checkers. Near George Washington University, a tiny parklet fills up with lunchers devouring hamburgers from a near-by favorite spot, Bon Appetit. ELEGANT SITES Ah, yes, please pass me a bit more of that darling pate de foie gras. He wears a white suit, pre-"Saturday Night Live" vintage. She's in a lacy long dress, ribbons flowing from her straw hat. Some Mozart delicately wafts through the air.

If this were my life, grass stains and ants would inject reality. But there are places any of us can pretend to be elegant. Here are a few. WOLF TRAP -- Judging by some of the picnic spreads on a summer evening at Wolf Trap, there are people who attend a performance mainly to eat.Champagne goblets, somehow spotless tablecloths and loaves of Vie de France bread put cheese sandwiches and Budweiser to shame. The first event of the year is a production of "Brigadoon," from May 27 through June 1, though the grounds are now open for visits. Call 938-3810.

Other outdoor concerts that are fertile picnic spots, too, are at MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION in Colunbia and at the FOUNDRY in Georgetown.MILITARY BAND concerts around town and the CAPITOL CONCERT series put on by the National Symphony are good bets. Aaron Copland conducts the NSO on May 26, on the West Lawn of the Capitol. FOLLOWING THE HORSES -- Springtime means races in hunt country, which means an afternoon in usually very classy surroundings. There are the point-to-point races sponsored by local clubs and those sanctioned by the Steeplechasing Association in New York. The grounds open early for "tailgate" parties: Spread out a picnic on the back of a station wagon. If you don't have such vehicle, and are orney enough not to buy one for the occasion, you can make yourself at home on the ground, too. Upcoming events include the first sanctioned race of the season on Sunday in Middleburg and the annual Gold Cup, held in Warrenton on May 3. The Grand National takes place in Butler, Maryland, north of Baltimore on Saturday. The Fair Hill Races, on May 26 and May 31 in Elkton, Maryland, always attract a crowd. MEMORIALS, PARKS, MONUMENTS Then there's that sunrise breakfast at the Lincoln Memorial. According to a National Park Service official, catered parties, weddings and other celebrations are "frowned on." But they're permitted in certain areas. The Park Service must have at least 48-hours notice, but they prefer to be forewarned as early as possible. It's free. And different, for sure. The caterer Avignone Freres is working on a dinner for 10 on a platform on Three Sisters Island. The waiters will bring the food over in rowboats. HAVE FOOD, WILL TRAVEL You're already to take one of these suggestions, or you have an outdoor spot of your own in mind. Maybe it's the back yard, maybe a boat or on the sidelines on a softball game. The next thing to ponder is what to eat. AMERICAN CAFE -- At its two locations in Georgetown and on Capitol Hill, the American Cafe makes three types of picnics-to-go, in little cardboard boxes with handles, ranging in price from $3.95 (a veggie sandwich, banana and potato salad) to $5.95 (roast beef, tossed salad and brownie). Give them some advance warning, especially if you want more than three or four boxes. Hours: Call 337-3601 (Georgetown) or 547-8504 (Capitol Hill). AVIGNONE FRERES -- This caterer makes a choice of seven different box lunches (one features liver pate rolled in ham) and three picnic baskets (a full lunch, with the price of the basket itself costing extra). Each ends up with fresh fruit and pastry. Call in advance. Hours: Monday through Saturday, from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday, 8:30 to 4. 1777 Columbia Road NW. Call 265-0332. CASA BAEZ -- The Casa Baez started life as a carryout, so they're experienced in the fine art of containers and such. Anything hot on the menu -- mainly meat and chicken dishes that come with beans and rice -- can be packaged to go and stay warm for about an hour. But if you don't want to eat under pressure or bring along an oven, you can try one of their cold plates. There's a sandwich of ham, Swiss cheese and various condiments that's squeezed tight in a sandwich press. Or escabeche, fried kingfish which is marinated and refrigerated. Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, noon to 8, Friday, noon to 8:45, Sunday, noon to 7. Closed Monday. 6551 Riggs Road, Hyattsville. Call 422-7766. GERMAN DELI -- Hilde Fehr, the owner of a deli near the Greyhound Bus Station, says she'd rather give people a little square of pastry than a box for the same price. So if you call and ask her to prepare a picnic, expect a bag. No matter. The cold cuts, German style, are not as highly sesoned as their Italian equivalent. The bienenstich, a honey almond cake, is heavenly. Hours: 9 to 6, every day but Sunday. 814 11th Street NW. Call 347-5732. ITALIAN GOURMET -- This carry-out spot in Vienna is convenient to Wolf Trap. Their picnics, packed in big white shopping bags, are for two or more.A popular one includes two huge sandwiches, a marinated salad, cannolis and a bottle of wine and goes for $11. Twenty-four hour notice is needed for their antipasto picnic, a selection of cheeses, veggies and meats. Hours: Monday through Wednesday, 10 to 6:30, Thursday and Friday, 10 to 7, Saturday, 10 to 6, Sunday, noon to 5. 505 Maple Avenue West, Vienna. Call 938-4141. BACK TO BASICS Goblets, fancy baskets, jellied vegetables, who knows what else. Let's not lose perspective. No less an expert than Julia Child devotes pages to that old-fashioned, no-frills picnic staple -- the hardboiled egg. After much experimentation, she suggests the following in Julia Child & Company: Put the eggs in a pot of cold water. Bring the water to a boil and take the pot off the heat. Cover it and let it sit for 17 minutes.

The enterprising picnicker realizes the value of the humble hard-boiled egg: It comes in its own container, needs no silverware and doubles as sporting gear in a relay race.