For the uninitiated, Ethiopian food means communal dining -- and lots of fun, especially if you grew up ignoring parental admonitions about eating with your hands. Spicy meat or vegetable stews are spooned over injera (oversize, pale pancakes made from a fermented wheat batter). To dig in, all you do is tear off pieces of injera and scoop up the stews along with accompanying dabs of vegetables. Descriptions, if any, have been excerpted from reviews by Phyllis C. Richman. Abbreviations for credit cards are as follows: AE, American Express; C, Choice; CB, Carte Blanche; DC, Diners' Club; MC, Master Charge; V, VISA. ABYSSINIAN -- 2020 Florida Avenue NW. 265-5860. D $5-$7.50. AE, MC, V. Reservations taken only for parties of five or more. Full bar service. ADDIS -- 702 King Street, Alexandria. 548-9404. D $4.50-$8.95. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Full bar. AXUM -- 2307 18th Street NW. 232-8844. L $3.95- $5, D $4.25-$5.95. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted, especially on weekends. Full bar service.

Suspend your expectations and Axum can be fun. It's in an Adams-Morgan townhouse that has been spruced up and hung with African artifacts, set with brown-and-white, vinyl-covered tables and reborn as an Ethiopian-Sudanese restaurant. The menu lists 20 dishes, many of them similar to one another, and all are served with injera. Lamb and lentil stews or chopped raw beef are on hand. A mild introduction to Ethiopian fare, the cooking here is simple and homey, with restrained use of the red pepper that is the principal spice. A few Sudanese dishes round out the menu, even though they are eaten Ethiopian-style with injera. BLUE NILE -- 1701 16th Street NW (In the rear of the Chastelton Apartments). 232-8400. L $4.15- $5.75, D $4.75-$5.95. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested, required on Friday and Saturday evenings. Full bar service.

Blue Nile looks like a cross between a small-town nightclub and an African museum. Located behind the courtyard of an apartment building, this restaurant is a challenge to find. The dining room is dimly lit with blue candles and yellow electric lights: atmospheric, even though the Ethiopian music has to compete with a television set at the bar. The Blue Nile keeps you off-balance: The waitresses wear beautiful long robes, while the tables are set with packages of moist tissues. As in other Ethiopian restaurants, you can order doro wote, a chicken and hard-cooked egg stew that is brick-red, peppery and flavored with onions. Khey wote is a beef version. Alicha is lamb stew, mild and cooked to a near puree. Tebse is chewy, scarcely spiced beef cubes. Kitfo is highly peppered, chopped raw beef. The portions are small, arranged on a tray atop pale, thin pancakes so that each person has individual servings in front of him, interspersed with dabs of vegetables, hot pepper paste and cottage cheese. A tidy arrangement of good, simple food that is strongly spiced. That's the entire meal. It grows on you. LA LIBELA -- 2000 S Street NW. 797-7640. L & D $3.50-$5.50. AE, DC, MC. Reservations for large parties suggested. Full bar service. MAMMA DESTA -- 4840 Georgia Avenue NW. 882- 2954. L & D $4.85-$6.25. No credit cards. Reservations suggested. Wine and beer only.

The first of Washington's Ethiopian restaurants, Mamma Desta wears its maturity well. The walls are hung with African artifacts and paintings; Ethiopian music plays faintly. The restaurant has a dozen choices of main dishes (no appetizers or desserts at all) that break down into dorro (chicken and hard-cooked egg), yebeg (lamb) or tibs (diced beef), either as alitchas (spicy stews) or watts (hot spicy stews) plus kitfo (very spicy chopped raw beef). Dishes are brought in big metal bowls for you to spoon onto the injera. Portions are small, but the pancakes are filling. It is zesty food, spiced simply and highly peppered, and fun to eat. Among the local competition, Mamma Desta stands out for the quality of its pancakes and its honey wine called teg. This beverage is not listed on the menu, but if you look around, you will notice people drinking it directly from small, bulbous glass jugs. It is like drinking flowers. And it is reason enough to try Mamma Desta. RED SEA -- 2463 18th Street NW. 483-5000. L $2.25- $4.30, D $3.55-$7.50. AE, C, CB, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested on weekends. Full bar. SHEBA -- 2341 18th Street NW. 483-7124. L & D $3.25-$5.50. AE, DC. Reservations accepted. Full bar..