AN AMBITIOUS attempt to give Washington a food festival to call its own will be unveiled this Saturday and Sunday at the Shoreham Hotel. Billed as "Taste of the Town," the two-day event will feature food samples, wine, beer and "continuous" entertainment between noon and 6 p.m.

Persons who pay a $2.50 tariff, will find 28 restaurants offering specialties in booths located in two of the Shoreham ballrooms and under a tent on the hotel's outdoor terrace. The food items, in sample portions, will cost from 75 cents to $1.50 each. Among the more mouthwatering selections are roast pork on white pizza from A. V. Ristorante, paper chicken from the Szechuan, Ethiopian casserole from the Blue Nile, barbecued pork from Barn Que and barbecued beef from O'Brien's, pie and french bread from the Bread Oven and sherbets from Le-Sorbet.

The event is intended to benefit the District of Columbia Division of the American Cancer Society. It is being sponsored by The Washingtonian magazine, plus American Express, Anheuser-Busch (which is introducing a new beer, Wurzburger Hofbrau) and the Dunfey Corp., which owns the Shoreham. The Wine Spectrum is participating with its Taylor California Cellars and Monterey Vineyards wines.

But the puppetmasters of the festival are Sandy and Donald Whyte, consultants and "social marketers," who conceived the idea and put together the package. As D&S Whyte Associates of Alexandria, they plan meetings, conventions, exhibits presentations and promotions for associations and not-for-profit organizations.

"In our work," Sandy Whyte said last week, "we came across food festivals in cities such as New Orleans and Toronto. We went, had a good time and said, 'let's do this in Washington.'"

They felt they had "read a trend" in food-related celebrations and saw a favorable "market makeup" (lots of single and double incomes, plus a perr capita dining out ratio higher than the national average). They also wanted a moderately priced event that would be "inclusive," rather than the exclusive fund-raising events often held here. The Cancer Society, they decided, had wide appeal and a volunteer structure in place to help staff and promote the event.

They approached the Cancer Society. There was interest, but concern, too. "This doesn't fit the conventional fund-raiser mold," Sandy Whyte said. "Also, it involved a big risk and couldn't be run just by members of the Society's volunteers committee." A contract was signed and the Whyte's began to seek underwriting so there would be "no possible loss to the Society and no need to pull back at the last minute."

American Express pledged $10,000, plus promotion. Anheuser-Busch did, too. The Shoreham pledged space, equipment and personnel. The Washingtonian became the local patron, offering free advertising space and editorial promotion of the event. Duke Zeibert was named honorary chairman and became a link to the restaurant community. Judith H. Rubenstin of the Cancer Society Volunteers became chairman. Jeff Ellis of Ridgewell's took on the key role of logistics coordinator. Marty Piecuch agreed to organize the entertainment.

Then began the twin tasks of recruiting restaurants and making sure Taste of the Town would meed the District's strict fire, health and sanitation regulations. Neither was easy.

On Jan. 15, there was a presentation for the 50 Washingtonian award-winning restaurants. The restaurants were asked to pay $600 against a guarantee of 40 percent of what they took in. They were told participation would provide "exposure to a new audience, publicity, community good will" and other benefits. Eventually, 15 were to join up, but the Whytes' enthusiasm wasn't met head on. "Some were unable to participate. They were too small and just didn't have enough personnel to free people on a Saturday. Others, particularly the French restaurants, had the means but more or less said, 'maybe next year. Let me see what happens.'"

In March, a second sweep was made of high volume American Express restaurants and the Whytes' appealed personally to restaurateurs they knew. "they were honestly worried," Donald Whyte said, "about how they would be presented and that they not jeopardize their images or the quality of their food." In the end, the Bread Oven and Le Sorbet, both volume operations that are promotion minded, did come in, as did the Sheraton Washington and Washington Hilton hotels. But the rest of the French and hotel communities stayed out.

The void was filled by other nationalities and by several restaurants that are primarily bars. But not completely. The Whyte's had been hoping for 40 to 50 participants. They will have only 30 or so for food, plus the beverage centers.

They have been careful with crowd forecasts, feeling that too large numbers would scare people away, while too small might give a hint of disaster. They have hopes of attracting about 40,000 over both days. Due to the difficulty of parking in or near the Shoreham, double-decker buses will provide shuttle service along Connecticut Avenue, from the Washington Hilton on the south and the zoo on the north. Inside the hotel, guests will purchase tickets, each valued at 25 cents, to be used in place of cash at the booths. They expect an average "tab" of about $8 per person.

"This is an event for Washington, an adult eating experience" Donald Whyte said. It is not a fund-raiser. It's a special event with whatever is leftover after expenses going to the American Cancer Socity. We own the project, and have a five-year relationship with the Society. Eventually, as it grows, it could move into the Convention Center."

The restaurants and their food offerings follow:

Market Inn, several soups: Danker's, thumb bits and coleslaw; Blue Mirror, cheese cake and miniature reubens; Old Europe, sauerbraten and red cabbage; Joe & Mo's, potato pancakes; Shooter McGee's, steamship round; El Caribe, ceviche; Candelas, agnilotti ala picare; China Inn, kingdom spare ribs; Szechuan, paper chicken; Beowulf, whilte gazpacho; Prime Rib, lobster bisque; Clyde's, chilli; The Bread Oven, pastries, pate on fresh bread; Golden Temple, spinach lasagna and bean sprout salad; Le Sorbet, sherberts; Taverna Cretekou, appetizer and baklava; Chadwick's, crab cakes; Tandoor, tandoor chicken; Kathmandu, samoza; Joe Theismann's, mushroom caps; O'Brien's Pit Barbecue, brisket of beef; Bullfeaters, bananas foster; Bombay Bicycle Club at the Shoreham, pork; A. V. Ristorante, porchetta, salsicce di fegato, white pizza.