A diamondback rattlesnake -- coiled in a clear glass salad bowl garnished with wilting watercress, its head propped upright with toothpicks -- was the topic of conversation at Taste of The Town, the eating event of the year.

"Ugh." "Ick." "Look at that, that's a rattlesnake." "I'd feel a lot worse if there was a lamb stuck in that bowl." Those were just a few of the surprised comments. After staring a minute, many, but not all, jumped in line and took a bite of rattlesnake salad.

"Snake in a salad is an affront to public decency at an affair like this. Just disgusting," said an insulted Gloria Corn of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3F. "Look at it this way," she said, "what would you rather have, rattlesnake in a salad or flank steak stuffed with oysters?"

Luckily for the non-lovers of snake, rattler wasn't the only item on the menu. Dominique's, purveyor of the diamonback, also offered buffalo sandwiches, which tasted like corned beef without the salt. They were much less popular than the snake, which tasted like bland chicken.

Some 30,000 people took part in the weekend event at the Sheraton-Washington Hotel, which featured tastes of food and wine from 43 area restaurants. Most samples cost about $1, with proceeds donated to Children's Hospital. There was everything from Szechuan chicken to she-crab soup to Texas chili. Bands alternated country, South American and folk music around the clock in the center of the room, while clowns and mimes roamed the huge auditorium making faces at the few children in attendance. Colorful restaurant insignias were draped from the backs of food booths.

By mid-afternoon the Saturday crowd was at its peak. Beer was flowing (50 kegs of Wurburger Hofbrau had been emptied) and even more popular were the wines from California, New York, Virginia and Europe. The wine question of the day was, which wine goes best with rattlesnake? Chenin blanc and chardonnay, of course, according to Forman Brothers distributors, who had plenty to offer.

Almost everyone found a new restaurant to visit.

"All right, I'll try it," signed a brave Louise Gobron, confronting the snake. "As long as I don't have to look at his face. He looks so sad." tShe ordered one rattlesnake salad and one buffalo sandwich. "Aren't buffalo in danger?" asked her friend Lyndon Stambler. "I don't know, but it's too late now," said Gobron, taking a bite. "The rattlesnake tastes like chicken salad," she said. Stambler thought the rattlesnake tasted more like chopped liver.

John McDermott was celebrating his birthday with his family. Plan anything special? he was asked. "Plan to eat a lot . When you've had 59 of them, this is as good a way as any to celebrate."

After downing a good-sized helping of O'Brien's barbecued beef and spare ribs, Art and Goldye Donner took a breather. "I feel like I've eaten everything here," Art said proudly, and then practically recited the menu. "The ribs are fantastic, juicy. You've got to have some of Twigs' filet mignon. And the Lobster Shed's lobster is okay. What's excellent is the Beringer Chardonnay. Of course, I already knew about that when I bought some. Didn't see the rattlesnake. We've been here about two hours. I guess we'll eat all day. Now it's time to try the desserts, once we find our daughter." She was playing with the clowns.

It was the first the last visit Marjorie and Herbert Rothenberg would make to The Taste. "I don't like crowds, the ceiling is too low and the parking is a hassle. Next time I'll probably just send money to Children's Hospital," she said.

Paul and Betty Herfurth found the long lines frustrating. While he was enjoying a bowl of spicy chili from Chadwick's, she was growing impatient with people cutting in front of her as she waited for pineapple custard. "I'd love to try a little of a lot, but I'm just turned off."

"Well, you discourage easily, dear," he said softly, adding that something must be done about the entry system. It took them 20 minutes to get their tickets.

Lack of elegance was another complaint. But no one complained about the food, which says a lot for this second annual fund-raiser, a strictly food event. Last year the first Taste of The Town grossed $115,000. The organizers, D & S Whyte, said it would be a couple of days before they knew this year's take.