For a few of us, the planet itself is home, to be explored with the airy freedom of a dreamer in a dream. But most people spend their working hours in far smaller worlds: offices, shops, factories, trucks, manholes, smoke-filled rooms . . . each with its established population and its visitors, its laws and mores, it pecking order, its unique atmosphere. From time to time we will drop in on these microworlds where so many of us live.

Under the black-and-white crenelated awning at 17th and Church streets is an ominous black door. When you open it, you find yourself in a tiny airlock facing another black door. Open that, and you walk into a dark chamber. You breathe a rich, confortable miasma that includes some of the cigar breath you left there yourself three years ago. It is slightly too dark to read in Annie's Paramount Steak House, though each booth has one of those orange glass-and-fishnet jars with a candle. You can tell the season by the decorations strung from the black ceiling: New Year's right now, along with Christmas leftovers. On the paneled walls are a few fake beer-barrel ends with spigots and some plastic liquor medallions, stuck around here and there haphazardly. The jukebox is doing "Heartbreak Hotel." People sit quietly in the booths: the same people in the same booths as last week. Others lounge at the small bar in the rear, where tall Myron works.

Some customers have been around so long they get Christmas presents. An old guy named Louis used to shuffle in every day with his shopping bag for his rum-and-coke. Later he went into a nursing home, but one day he got out and came back to Annie's and Myron took him home.

"Some of the same people have been working here 30 years," says Myron. "Georgia, she does the onion rings and stuff in the kitchen, she's been here since the place opened in 1948. Robert the dishwasher has been around 30 years. He sleeps here. It's his home."

Kathy was practically born in the place. Her mother, the original Annie, was pregnant with her when the restaurant opened.

Even the cash register at Annie's was 27 years old when it died last month. It was replaced with a fancy new electronic thing that scares everybody.

That's all right, someone'll spill some Benedictine in it one of these days that'll fix it," Myron mutters. He came in for a temporary job a year ago because they needed a waiter for the sidewalk patio and the real estate business wasn't going so well for him. He's still here. Lisa too: She came to work at Annie's while job-hunting after she got her degree in economics. That was many months ago.

"I could make more money someplace else," says Myron. "I guess it's the atmosphere. It's the people."

Sounds: Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" on the jukebox for the four thousandth time. They have Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, lots of Elvis (kathy loves Elvis), everything from Judy Garland to Tanya Tucker. A voice gargles over the kitchen intercom like a diver 40 fathoms down: "Greg!" "Judy!" Three men in a side booth are talking financial grant-ese. Lunchtime after lunchtime people take cabs here from all over town. Summers, the patio is packed by this time, so there would be a lot of traffic through the front door, but now the room is snug.

They hate the patio. People take off, don't tip. It's an oven out there off the sidewalk, anyway.

"We're all family," says Kathy, who works a split week so she can be with her two small children (she moved to Reno because it was getting too much, and that was part of the deal for the coming back). "My mother [Anna Kaylor] and my Aunt Sue [Stouts] run the place, and my Uncle George [Katinas] owns it, and my brother runs the butcher shop that handles all our meat exclusively. The cooks are Ned and Becky, she's the daughter of one of our waitresses. We have a lot of children of people working here."

Another waitress is an opera singer. Another lives in Vienna, Va. and goes to Florida in the winter.

"No wonder people say it's the best steak house in town," Kathy says. "We haven't raised our prices in two years. We're giving it away. Martinis finally went up a dime to $1.65."

The martinis are 8-to-1, and all the bottles are right up on the shelf: There's no "well" to hide off-brand liquor. They use a lot of miniatures.

And the beef. I tell you -- $5.95 for an 8-ounce steak nearly two inches thick with not the slightest sliver of fat or gristle.

By day, Annie's -- the new menus say Anne's, but everybody calls it Annie's -- is a tete-a-tete. By night, it's a block party. Many of the gays who live in the neighborhood (and elsewhere) swarm in, mixing peaceably with straight couples. The staff doubles to four waiting-on and two at the bar. The age level goes down, and the noise level goes up.

"It's jammed in here," says Myron. "It's Old Home Week. It's wild."

On a busy night at Annie's Paramount Steak House, waitresses have been known to hand silverware to an arriving customer and shout, "'here, you make up the table, will ya?" It's that kind of place.