Lobbying in Washington isn't what you might think.

Or at least, it's not always what people imagine: two-hour, three-martini lunches in la-de-da restaurants, setting up deals and knitting relationships. Sometimes it's nursing a bloody mary for an hour or so in an upholstered cavern -- which may be as well-appointed as any expense-accound brasserie -- sitting out waits and ducking doormen.

Since everyone winds up killing some time from time to time, here's a nasty sampling of where to wait, and why, based on noise level, service -- and the bloody marys. THE CAPITAL HILTON: The new trend in hotel lobbies: The bar is integrated into the main area, not off in some corner. In fact, the bar is the nicest part of the lobby. Dimly lit, with big wicker chairs and leather couches, the bar is quiet by day and packed by night, and it seves a good bloody mary.

The lobby outside is crowded with professionals, many sporting "Hello, my name is tags. Loud Muzak (in fact, the loudest of the sampling) barely mutes the din of the guests who make the lobby their living room. The ambience bespeaks relaxation and luxury, but there's a homey hustle and bustle. a

For the consumer, this lobby is a goldmine of fake Christian Dior jewlery. Several display cases runneth over with the simulated designer bangles and earrings. Other stores offer newspapers, gifts and shoeshines. What it didn't have was someone chasing away loitering reporters. A good lobby in which to assert one's anonymity. THE SHERATON-CARLTON HOTEL: You can spend a lot of time here trying to ascertain the architectural style of the interior decoration. Baroque? Byzantine? Greco-Roman? Look at the gold-encrusted ceiling reliefs, the turquoise walls, the light-green accents. Cast your mind back to art history, and regard the pudgy Cupids, Tuscan scenes and heavy beams. The lobby is one room, with a sense of campy intimacy, as if the space is part of a dollhouse. Sunlight filters in through red-curtained windows as the lobby's few chairs and couches fill up quickly. Not that the lobby's short on furniture, but much of it is behind thick gold ropes. A doorman says, "Too many people was sittin' in them."

The nicest part of the lobby is a small restaurant, about a quarter of the space, with a menu of delicate little edibles. A few flowers grace each table, and many of the ladies lunching there are wearing very stylish hats.

Civilized drinkers may want to down a few at the Polo Room, at one end; dark wood and leather couches replace the rococo of the main hall. If you don't want to associate with hard-liquor drinkers, there's a wine bar at the opposite end, also devoid of the interesting design of the foyer. THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC BUILDING: Not on the program, but a guard invited a peeking reporter in. "It'll only take you a few minutes to look around," he said. An iguana loomed in the window. "Oh, he ain't real," the guard offered. "The bird's real, but the iguana ain't." An hour later, the reporter was still wandering around among talking exhibits about ancient tool-making; a life-size model of kivas, a kind of men's club for the Indian cave-dwellers of the Southwest, and the world's largest frog.

The 10-pound animal, embalmed and displayed belly forwards in a case near the back, didn't draw the attention of two women calmly reading newspapers close by, oblivious to the world's eighth wonder. The next exhibit, an aepyornis egg, laid a billion trillion years ago by a aepyornis maximus, was about the size of a football and covered with the blood of a lamb sacrificed to give thanks for finding such a good-luck charm.

The lobby part of this lobby consists of several couches surrounding a fountain whose centerpiece is a huge revolving globe. Other couches and chairs are scattered among the exhibits, making the place an informal museum of sorts: a life-size scuba diver hanging from the ceiling; a small fragment of Skylab that landed in Esperance, West Australia; an optical illusion, "one of the fascinating applications of stroboscopic light." No bloody marys, just a water fountain, but a museum of the bizzarre that callss for a return visit. THE JEFFERSON HOTEL: The script on the front awning matches that of The New Yorker, and the lobby matches the magazine's style: tasteful, elegant, but not without a sense of humor. The decor is all light pinks and golds. The furniture is early American, straight-backed chairs, grandfather clocks and all. The lightening is subdued, the sound is silent. Does anybody stay here? Doormen are suspicious. Not a particularly warm place to meet and greet friends -- certainly no place to dawdle -- but quite proper. The bar, discreetly off the lobby to discourage riff and raff from off the street, offers complete privacy. Several three-piece suits fill it by day; it was too intimidating to return to at night. THE FAIRFAX HOTEL, newly remodled, puts the visitor at ease instantly -- the forest-green walls, the darling French prints here and there, the abundance of women in Lilly Pulitzer outfits -- if the visitor hails from Boston: intimacy, elegance and unabashed preppiness. The main area is small: a check-in desk, a few chairs and couches. Bright light fills the space, reflecting off perfectly polished early-American furniture and marble tables. Every so often, a crisply dressed womam or smartly dressed man will stroll through, Gucci briefcase in tow.

The Jockey Club, a small, country inn-type restaurant off the lobby serves full meals.

At mid-afternoon the bar is empty, offering a choice of lovely nooks and crannies. Private niches offer soft couches with velvet pillows and oriental rugs. The bar is old-fashioned, curving wood with brass railing. The lighting is not too dark, not too bright.

"Crowded at night?" "Not too," the barman says, "but we have our share of visitors." Sometime after 10 the bar is filled with the low hum of contented preppies, the lobby rather like the foyer of the Harvard Club. ARNOLD & PORTER, a lobby recommended by many. Is this the right place? It is. Two couches. Minimal activity. Several young professionals walk out. An older professional in a three-piece suit, carrying a tennis racket, walks in. The receptionist flirts. The showpiece is a large, abstract sculpture in a glassed-in courtyard just off the entrance foyer. The sculpture is leaking. It's not a lobby for socializing; it offers the chance to observe businessmen and businesswomen. And a large sculpture. Which leaks, little intrigue, only two couches, and no bloody marys; still, an airy and quiet oasis. THE MAYFLOWER: Proportionally speaking, this lobby is 85 per cent hallway. In fact, the main foyer -- consisting of a check-in desk, a small bar and a few couches -- seems minus-cule next to the grand walkway that extends from Connecticut Avenue to 17th Street. And even with the telephones and benches lining walls, an airplane could make an emergency landing here without a problem. A small airplane, anyway.

A very busy hotel, its former elegance not quite jibing with its current status. The once-bold red rug is worn thin, the once-dazzling chandeliers looks a bit tacky, the doormen shout to one another down the once-breath-taking hallway. Plaques labeled "HISTORY IN THE MAKING" line the hallway. Of some interst: a luncheon in honor of Mrs. Calvin Coolidge given by Mrs. William F. Whiting January 18, 1929, and, five days later, one in honor of Mrs. William Howard Taft (it doesn't say who gave it).

Royalty abounds, as do misspellings; "Moroccon King" combines the two, but "Fiorella LaGuardia" and "Newton Minnow" are high on the list. If you thought that prayer breakfasts began with Republicans, you should see the plaque recording one JFK and LBJ held, February 25, 1962; the Kennedy inaugural is commenorated in the name of a pair of guest: MR. AND MRS. PAT BOONE JANUARY 1961 GUESTS FOR JOHN F. KENNEDY INAUGURAL BALL Beneath that is a plaque marking Richard M. Nixon's 1969 inaugural ball, on which someone has scratched the word "loser."

FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson went to the Mayflower on January 7, 1934, for a memorial dinner; and in January 1961, after the people had spoken, then-President Eisenhower threw a birthday party there for then-Vice President Nixon.

Perhaps the most interesting, though, is one that reads: Henry l. doherty gave a TREMENDOUS PARTY IN HONOR OF MISS DOHERTY'S INTRODUCTION TO WASHINGTON SOCIETY ON DECEMBER 26, 1930 Who decided that the party was "tremendous"? The hotel? Henry L. Doherty? About 10 percent of the plaques offer a recognizable events and personalities, but on a rainy day, or when inebriated, finding that 10 per cent might be entertaining.

The Mayflower seems not a bad place to watch people, especially people who are not celebrities. Near the telephone booth, some good business deals are being transacted, and the bar offers a good -- but not stellar -- bloody mary. Maybe this is the Pontiac of hotel lobbies.

THE HYATT REGENCY: Though not nearly as breathtaking as the just-opened one in New York City, Washington's Hyatt offers an awesome combination of glass, light, greenery and elevators. The lobby is split into several unusually shaped spaces: a circular couch serves as a lounging area, a triangle overtaken by plants is the entrance hall.

Downstairs (and there are a variety of picturesque ways to get to the lower level), the Hyatt has three restaurants, two of them "open-air" affairs -- chairs and tables arranged among plants and more plants in an indoor solarium. Tea Dancing, as one of the cafes is called, ordinarily provides tea and big-band dancing every Thursday evening. The big band, however, is on summer vacation -- to return after Labor Day.

As most tourists quickly discover, the Hyatt offers a superb view of the city. Whisked by glass elevators to the top of the hotel, most indulgers say that the trip is just as much fun as the view. THE WATERGATE: Once upon a time, not too long ago, the Watergate was not in . But then the G.O.P. came to town, and all that changed.

The Watergate doesn't have just one lobby -- there are several different entrances and (ergo) several gathering areas. The fact of the matter, however, is that people who stay at the Watergate don't need lobbies to meet and greet. They have their penthouse suites to do that. Nevertheless, once appropriately attired, anybody can spend an hour or two watching the sights in this lobby. A few famous people, a few very important people you sort of recognize, people who look rich: The Watergate has them all. One drawback: Watergate doormen have a keen eye for imposters off the street. They'll badger you with questions; they might even ask for your room number.

In one sense, it doesn't matter. There are a thousand fish in the sea, and hundreds of lobbies in Washington -- waiting and waiting, there for the sitting.