The traditional party honoring the queen of England's birthday drew 200 very hungry guests (for word had spread in advance that the food was going to be exceptional) to the British Embassy on Saturday night, but this year it was different.

Often in the past it's been a garden party with a cast of thousands, you might say, but this year it was relatively very small and your best chance of being invited was to be a Cabinet member or ambassador of a Commonwealth nation or a reporter.

"We have Secretary of the Interior Andrus," said Sir Nicholas Henderson the British ambassador, shortly after supper and well before most guests could face the thought of dancing (it was a dinner dance) and six members of Congress, and six from the White House, and 20 journalists and --

"And a partridge in a pear tree," called out a British fellow of the rude sort.

"And Mr. Joseph Alsop," concluded the ambassador, a trifle pleased at having put Alsop in a separate category.

"Well," said a British woman, "this is all extremely pleasant, this beautiful dinner, but is it good PR? [public relations]. Those garden parties -- maybe you got nothing but a strawberry, but every member of the House and Senate was invited. Those here tonight don't need to be sold, after all. We are all British or Commonwealth people tonight -- you don't see the Americans."

"I'm American," a fellow told her.

"Of course," she said. (But she had meant real Americans).

Lady Henderson received in a Victorian-looking dress of perhaps white cotton, demure and summery and chic, with great banks of bedded roses behind her. Guests entered through the garden, and stood about with drinks on the wonderful terrace beneath the pedimented columns of the garden front. The paving there includes thin slates set on edge, a favorite device of the architect Lutyens and one that gives richness of texture. Everyone admires this pavement enormously, except women.

"Damn," said one of them with heels.

"Do take a look at our petunia life," said Sir Nicholas to everybody he thought likely to be interested in flowers (one in five, possibly). He himself is much taken by the big bouncy ones that look like carnations and smell even better. But although he moved over to them several times, he was not of course allowed to just stand there admiring his petunias, but dutifully returned to make introductions and ambassador talk.

The serving tables inside were garlanded with tricolor ribbon, the rooms lit with more candles than lamps, the chandeliers polished to within an inch of their lives, and the platters heavy (if the word is permissible for grand yum-yummeries) with salmons with transparent cucumbers scales, meats in jellies in pastries, avocados whipped up into fluff no heavier than a butterfly's luggage and so on.

The great tension of the evening was between those who discovered the raspberries and those who did not.

As guests simmered down after supper, Sir Nicholas rose to speak in the beautiful white and blue room, beneath the baroque plaster garlands and tremendous ceiling crystals that are its main decoration. He stationed himself by a recording machine that has colored lights at the side (it is understood this sort of machinery is used in disco clubs) and said:

"People often ask what the Commonwealth is. I've heard it likened to the okapi, and animal like no other."

(The Post's dictionary states an okapi "resembles in many respects a giraffe, but being somewhat smaller than an ox" and marked by various stripes and patches or assorted hue).

And yet, he went on, the Commonwealth does hold together and God bless it and now (here everybody stood up) a toast to Her Majesty, the queen. b

The strains of the British anthem floated forth, followed by a toast to the American president, and, again the American anthem sounded. But really it is quite long, isn't it, and it stopped about the rocket's red glare and the room was in silence for two seconds until people were convinced it wasn't going to start up again, then the animated chatter that follows a fine dinner in a pretty room started up again.

After a bit of dancing -- not disco music at all, as it worked out -- Jimmy Symington sang "Greensleeves" and other semi-recognizable tunes that live out toward the edge of recollection, and some settled down with brandy and harrumphs, while others had coffee and lively talk.

Those who work like dogs left at midnight, but no telling how long others stayed, and outdoors the air was soft and the vanilla scent of flowers was over the terrace and I say, now, what a splendid event and many happy returns to the birthday girl.