The traditional night on the town means dinner and the theater, but no one ever tells you which one comes first.

Looking to old songs for guidance, you learn that a lady who gets too hungry to wait for dinner at 8 and is always on time for the theater is a tramp. Well, it's true that dining early may be a little unfashionable, but having a stomach growl during a concert is gauche.

A hardliner on the side of dining late is Josef Muran de Assereto, owner of Cantina d'Italia, who considers it ideal to eat a late lunch, then meet for cocktails, go to the theater and have dinner afterward: "Never before," he says. "You don't want to fall asleep while someone is singing 'Aida.' If you eat too much you will fall asleep during the performance -- unless it is your mother on the stage."

At Cantina, sometimes people come in before the theater and tell him they can't spend mor than an hour. "I tell them very honestly that they are stealing from themselves. It's not enough time." His manager is even more outspoken: "She will tell them at the door: 'One hour? It's not civilized!'

"Our society is rushed," he says.

But whatever your inclinations, here's a sampling of restaurants convenient to theaters. For the dine-before-you-go crowd, there are some restaurants with special pre- theater dinner menus. These can mean a chance to monopolize your favorite French waiter. But other times, unfortunately, so much anticipation goes into the prix-fixe meals that they begin to taste like fare left too long on the steam table. For night-feeders, most of these restaurants hedge their bets and serve an after-theater menu, too.

The other night at DOMINIQUE, 1900 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, we were whisked in and out in plenty of time.

The restaurant belies its office-building lodging: The step down from the street takes you from Washington to someplace in Paris. The faded tapestries, the muted light through stained glass, the flicker of gaslight chandeliers -- the brown-and-bronze rooms glow warmly, reflecting back from the mirrored ceiling. Conversation comes from along a wall where people sit two by two. Larger groups in booths have a lot more privacy; but one doesn't come to Dominique to be alone.

Many of the customers were having the early-dinner specials, $9.95 for appetizer, entree and dessert on a menu where entrees usually start at $12. Served from 5:30 to 6:30 and from 10:30 to 11:30 every day but Sunday, there are about eight choices each of appetizer, entree and dessert. There were things like rabbit in red wine sauce, veal and chicken sausages baked with red cabbage and a cold half-lobster. The flounder filet was boney, covered overall with an oversalted sauce of tomatoes and capers and crossed with zucchini slices. Another entree, lamb casserole, was tender and not as dry as a cassoulet usually is; instead the beans were suffused with a rich tomatoey sauce that turned out to be quite good.

Among the desserts was what the waiter called simply "chocolate cake," a dreamy ambrosia of chocolate layers filled with chocolate bits, cream and liqueur, covered with fudge icing and chocolate sprinkles and topped with marzipan.

The waiters and waitresses were quick without being brusque, and friendly. "Are you going to the show?" asked a waitress of one couple. After their mumbled reply she said good-naturedly "Eh, going some other place very mysterious. You won't tell me." But it didn't matter, they were in and out in 45 minutes that included lingering over coffee -- in time to go to anything.

A liter of house wine was $8.25, which brought our bill for two to $30, not including tip. With a lack of pretentiousness refreshing a French restaurant, everyone who had waited on us--somehow at least three people had coordinated the effort--called good-bye, and so did the maitre d'.

One rainy late afternoon in Georgetown, while traffic streamed down the street and runnels poured through the gutters, we took refuge at LE BISTRO FRANCAIS, 3128 M Street NW, another place with a special theater menu. The bare wood floors, the mirrors, the cheery posters on the walls gave a welcoming feeling that increased with the sight of the open kitchen at the end of the dining room, where cooks chatted amiably and chickens rolled on spits before an open rotisserie.

It didn't lower our standing with the waiter that we wanted only the early-bird dinner, which included a glass of house wine, a choice of appetizer (soup du jour, homemade liver mousse or six raw oysters), one of six entrees from the daily dinner specials and one of six desserts. The $9.95 prix-fixe dinner is served daily from 5 to 7 and again from 10:30 to 1.

Unfortunately, we found that some things we really wanted to order were not on the special menu. This is the hazard of the prix-fixe: Hungry diners really are tempted to veer off the prescribed path . . . to snails, perhaps. This was the sentiment of one who'd ordered oysters -- they turned out to be the smallest we'd ever seen. To be fair, the party next to us was served much bigger ones. But the liver mousse was perfectly acceptable and the French bread with it was very fresh.

One of the entrees one might not buy if it weren't on sale, as it were, was veal kidneys in madeira sauce. Somewhere between sweetbreads and liver in flavor and firmer than sweetbreads in texture, they were quite good, in sauce that was thin but savory. A marinated lamb brochette, arriving saignant, had to be returned to the kitchen. But this was no problem, and a few minutes later a new order was served, medium rare.

Overall, it was great for the price. Adding everything up, it would've cost more than $15 per person, or half again as much, a la carte.

Desserts were delicious: luscious chocolate mousse and a chocolate mousse cake, and a fresh tart of thinly sliced apples with creamy filling and buttery pastry.

Other restaurants are so close to the theater that they know what to expect, like LES CHAMPS at 600 New Hampshire Avenue NW, across the street from the Kennedy Center: "I have a crowd coming in at 6 and 6:30 for the National Symphony at 7," the maitre d' said on the telephone when we called for reservations. "Can you come at 6:45?"

Poster after poster of past performances at the Kennedy Center covers the walls of Les Champs -- a stroll down memory lane. Through the windows one can see the Watergate shops, which adds to the impression of an airy cafe.

The menu offers dinners and light-supper fare from 5:30 to 11:30, except on Sunday when hours are noon to 6.

The diners ebb and flow according to the tides of the Kennedy Center. You won't miss curtain time -- just follow the crowd, and expect to have the restaurant to yourself if you don't.

Those with an aversion to salad bars will find little to fault here. A giant plastic canopy shelters the crisp romaine, raw spinach, mushrooms and all the other fresh ingredients. Not only will you make your own salad, you will slice your own bread (and the pumpernickel is recommended). But this self-service speeds things up considerably. You may have barely finished the salad before the entree comes -- simple selections like hickory-roasted chicken or rainbow trout. For a light supper, there are blintzes, eggs Benedict, quiche. In the appetizers, we found the pate, although a generous three slices, to be both fatty and watery, and disturbingly permeated with peppercorns. A more effective use of peppercorns was the lamb shish kebab, medium rare and pepper-encrusted, with a touch of cinnamon. The food was highly seasoned. If there's room for dessert, there are Watergate pastries on the menu.

Another possibility near the Kennedy Center is FOGGY BOTTOM CAFE in the River Inn at 924 25th Street NW. Dinner is 5:30 to 11:30 Tuesday through Saturday, to 10:30 on Sunday and Monday, and can range from hamburgers to fish en papillote or a slab of spareribs that could engage you for a good part of the evening. You can settle in at the oak-and-brass bar of this pleasant little cafe, where bold flower prints echo the Persian lilies on the oak tables. And there are only 16 tables, so be sure to make reservations.

On a chilly night when the wind sweeps off the river and whips around the Kennedy Center, it is sometimes best just to go inside as early as possible. Upstairs there's the Roof Terhe race if you want a full meal before the performance, but the little HORS D'OEUVRERIE next to it is quick and moderately priced and doesn't require reservations. There are exotic drinks, and a selection of 10 hors d'oeuvres ranging in price from $3.75 to $5.50. One who likes appetizers can easily make a meal of them. Of all, the tempura was outstanding: light, thin golden batter-coated shrimps, mushrooms, zucchini, crisp broccoli and cauliflower. The honey-mustard dip sauce was pleasantly tangy but not overwhelming. Other favorites were the baked brie in pastry shell, served hot with orange slices, and the iced crudites with a rich, peppery guacamole dip.

The brochettes of sesame chicken were speared into a generous section of pineapple, but their flavor was pure Pappy Parker. And though it looked promising with its larding of skin and garnish of grape, the duck pate was tasteless, and the Cumberland sauce that accompanied it seemed little more than currant jelly.

At the Hors D'Oeuvrerie, one sinks into a red velvet loveseat alongside a marble-topped cocktail table. Light from maroon ginger-jar lamps reflects from mirrored walls beneath the typical Kennedy Center high ceiling and chandeliers. Without paying the prices of the more expensive restaurant in the next room, one can still listen to a harpist play and gently sing "A Certain Smile."

On the waterfront across from Arena Stage sits the BARLEY MOW, which shares a building with Casa Maria. In the subterranean garage, convenient for theatergoers, restaurant patrons can get a parking discount. Inside, the Barley Mow has the atmosphere of a large, comfortable English pub, with beamed wooden ceilings, heavy oak tables set with pewter plates, wooden banquettes with velvet cushions, paisley wallpaper and oriental rugs. A gas jet flickers in a stone fireplace, and carved in the crossbeams above the mantel is Omar Khayyam's saying, "A loaf of bred (sic), a jug of wine and thou."

The loaf of bread this night was molasses, and there's a glass of wine with every before-theater dinner. As for thou, keep thou to the beef among the three choices of prix-fixe entree: prime rib, stuffed trout Trafalgar and chicken Montgomery. You can choose between soup (pea soup this night) or salad -- spinach or Caesar. Although the romaine was fresh in the Caesar salad, we were unable to taste any of the required egg, anchovy or Worcestershire sauce in the dressing. The kitchen did remember to top the salad with croutons.

The menu had promised two fillets of stuffed trout; instead there arrived a whole trout that did not taste fresh. The prime rib happened to be the best choice, flavorful and served perfectly medium rare, about 11/2 inches thick. Some good creamed spinach accompanied it, along with a twice-baked potato that would have been enjoyable hot.

The prix-fixe dinner, served Monday through Saturday from 5 to 7 and Sunday from 4 to 6, was $8.95 for the chicken or fish and $9.95 for the beef. However, we noticed at the next table, as one does, a man consuming a much larger portion of prime rib: two ribs in what they called the Princess Anne cut ($11.50). Another version ($13.50) comes with Yorkshire pudding. It pick -- on the waterside strip.

Another candidate for dinner near Arena Stage is R.S.V.P. RESTAURANT at 401 M Street SW, which serves soul food. There are spareribs dripping with thick sauce, juicy fried chicken in a crisp golden batter and fried fish or shrimp, served with delicious, crumbly corn bread. The steakfries could easily hold their own against The Palm Restaurant's celebrated Palm fries. If you take disco with your dinner, this is the place. Walking through the dance floor leads to the dining room where the music is piped in. R.S.V.P. is behind the Waterside Mall, but you can best reach it through the parking lot entrance on K Street SW, just off Sixth.

About halfway between the National Theater and Kennedy Center, MAISON BLANCHE serves a delightful prix-fixe Monday through Saturday from 6 to 7 and from 10 to 11. Behind a hedgerow of euonymus and under a brown marquee is the entrance at 1725 F Street, near the White House. Inside, the bar is busy in the evening but seems removed from the restaurant, which is decorated with chandeliers, fringed pink valances, wood paneling. Our waiter turned out to be a favorite one who'd worked at Lion d'Or and whose style hasn't changed.

The prix-fixe menu for $14.95 offered, among other things, hearts of palm vinaigrette and a robust pate of duck and liver and hazelnuts, garnished with cornichons and baby black olives. The salade mimosa that followed was romaine and vinaigrette with egg.

Entrees included duck for two (add 25 minutes for this one); mignonettes de boeuf bordelaise, which was tender and wine-rich but not overpowering; and mousse of bay scallops in two kinds of sauce. This was two delicate quenelles that melted in the mouth, arranged almost as yin and yang: a white wine sauce blanketed one quenelle and a tawny lobster sauce the other. We couldn't decide which we preferred.

And then for dessert, while sifting over the possibilities on the pastry cart, we were presented with a plate of cookies and freshly made truffles. Coffee appeared spontaneously. From the cart, the chocolate mousse, lying in a bed of coffee sauce poured from a silver pitcher, had ladyfingers for companions and was topped with scraped chocolate and confectioners' sugar. The black currant charlotte, florid with cassis, was positively racy.

And just when it seemed more than enough, along came a swan made of aluminum foil, enfolding still more cookies and truffles -- to take along for munching during intermission at the Kennedy Center, no doubt. Free valet parking for diners after 6 makes it convenient.

Now that Bassin's is torn down, frequenters of Washington's downtown theaters have to look a little farther. This is not to say that you must spend a lot of money. With the price of two tickets at National Theater upwards of $60, who would blame you for stopping at McDONALD'S for a quick bite? For this, go to 521-523 13th Street NW before 9 -- except on Sundays when McDonald's closes at 6.

Nearby, the OLD EBBITT GRILL has at least two things going for it: history and location. A plaque out front marks the building as a historic site; the mahogany bar inside has been aged for well over a hundred years. And at 1427 F Street NW it's a short walk from the National, Warner and Ford's.

There's a musty air to the place that lends itself to the pub atmosphere. The restaurant feels like old Philadelphia, rather than a slicker, parvenu Washington: It's full of old steins and antelope-head trophies; an American flag doubles as a tapestry. Contrasting with the bare, unpolished wood floors are blue-and-white checked tablecloths, each table with a single flower.

Up the stairs you climb to nooks and crannies, one with four tables overlooking the main dining room. In another, hanging plants replace the animal heads. The omelet room serves variations on the egg theme, one with sharp cheddar and Bermuda onions, named for the restaurant. There's even one made with chili. The omelet comes with a crisp green salad with Roquefort house dressing and warm rolls. Otherwise, the fare includes bleu-cheese burgers and Welsh-rarebit burgers, steaks, crabcakes, a Reuben, quiche Lorraine and Clyde's (it's part of the chain) chili. Many of the sandwiches are under $5 and probably hearty enough to see you through "Evita." But you can stop back for fortification: Old Ebbitt Grill stays open until 1 in the mord Paning.

A short hop from the Folger Theater is 2091/2. With its unprepossessing facade, a gray storefront with white decorator blinds, it could almost be mistaken for an extension of the barber shop that is 209 to its half on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. 2091/2 serves only prix-fixe dinners; selections change monthly, and the theater menu ($16) is an abbreviation of the regular $22 menu.

To drink, the waiter suggested kir cremant, a combination of cassis and sparkling white wine, which came in elegant tall glasses, along with a dish of large green olives and canapes spread with an interesting anchovy-caper paste. The aperitif was more refreshing than the non-carbonated version, a delightful before-theater drink. We sat back and looked around.

The walls are a muted brown-lavender below and brown above, divided by white molding and hung with many prints in gilt frames of 18th-century Chinese men at work. Butcher-block tables, wooden chairs and round woven placemats give 2091/2 a comfortable informality. A colorful statue of a Chinese dragon and bright orange gladioli on the bar caught the eye.

When dinner came, the salad was spinach, romaine and watercress in vinaigrette; the rolls were the freshest puffs sprinkled with sesame seeds. Veal Polonaise was tender at the expense of esthetics: The pieces of veal were still pink inside, but without a trace of browning on the outside, on a bed of broccoli sauce and topped with chopped egg. It was an effort in health-food French that didn't succeed.

But the sweet Bay scallops did succeed, coated with a creamy sauce of fresh tomato tinged with curry. The scallops came with hot sauteed cherry tomatoes rolled in parsley and zucchini-parmesan fritters -- which were crisp golden-brown outside and nicely moist inside.

For dessert there were two choices: sour-cream chocolate cake, fresh and rich with fudge icing; or strawberries and cream, a large plate of whipped cream spread in the shape of an apple with mint as the stem and dotted sparsely with strawberries. It looked as if someone had gone wild with the shaving cream.

The theater menu is served from 6 to 7 daily and again from 9:30 to 11:30 Monday through Thursday, and from 10:30 to 11:30 Fridays and Saturdays.