"THERE'S NO Sardi's in Washington," said Herb White, "no Elaine's, no Algonquin . . . ."

So now there's Herb's.

The walls are covered with posters, book jackets, smiling photos of Washington artists and art people, from Walter Hopps and Leon Berkowitz to Rebecca Davenport and Livingston Biddle. There is even a round table with a plaque that says "Nobody but a fool ever wrote for anything but money." It is called the Algonquin South table.

"It's our little pretension," White mused. "Barbara Raskin gave us the quote. We hope to have monthly discussions of the art scene here."

Herb's, at 2111 P St. NW, is that kind of a place. Right off the bat when it opened in May it had four benefits, for local artists', writers', dancers' and actors' groups. No big deal, just an open bar and buffet for $10 a head. It was the thought.

"We had a benefit for the Sculpture Institute and we just turned over the Happy Hour to 'em, contributed some hors d'oeuvres, and in four hours they made $700."

White, a refugee from Georgetown ('54) and the Foreign Service, used to own the Ontario Theater, later ran the Cafe Don in the Adams-Morgan area, and in 1961 he took over the famous old Wayside Inn near Winchester, renovated it and started the Wayside Dinner Theater. With the Leo Bernstein family as partners, he opened Herb's on a site that has had a discouraging history since it started as Aldo's Eagle's Nest in 1966. Seven other restaurants succeeded Aldo's, all operating out of the Georgetown Hotel lobby at 2121 P.

White broke the spell by building a new entrance up the street, though he still handles room service for the hotel. He put in a new bar, new floors and lighting.

Today, the restaurant seems to go on forever, starting with the pleasantly lighted front room and moving down the long leg of an L into a subterranean, artificially lit dinner den. The food, prepared by a Thai and an American, has a touch of spare elegance that so much Washington cuisine, at twice the price, lacks.

"We got the whole place intact, 180 seats, at a great saving, which we're passing on to the customers," said White. Lunch runs about $6 to $8, while dinner ranges from $12 to $16. And you can get a 55-cent beer at happy hour.

White goes out of his way to hire artists and writers for his staff -- the night bartender is a choreographer and dancer, for instance -- and he tries to accommodate their special needs, as when waitress Gay Glading needed some time off to work on her Corcoran show. A former art student, White collects paintings and antiques, and for a while was assistant director of the Smithsonian Associates program.

"I just like the people in the arts better than politicians," he said. "Their minds are more interesting, and they're not so self-centered or power-centered."

Because the Washington art world is a fairly small world, nice things can happen at Herb's. Once John Archbold, whose estate is being developed as a fancy housing tract, spotted his daughter on a poster for a New York dance troupe.

White likes to feel Herb's is a neighborhood place, moving right along with the ever-changing Dupont Circle area. Even the fine ironwork at the entrance was done by a neighbor, architect Shalom Baranes. And the two nude statues at the entrance are already local characters.