You don't have to go far to find fall foliage; likewise, you don't have to travel far to end the day at an inn.
EVANS FARM INN -- 1696 Chain Bridge Road, McLean. 356-8000. L $5.25-$8, D $8.95-$16. Open daily. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking. Full bar.
Evans Farm Inn isn't really old and isn't really in the country, but one doesn't really notice such things here. The 40 acres are green and rolling, with farm machinery and statuary set among flower gardens and fruit trees; goats and sheep and ducks roam through the yards. The stone house is floored in flagstone, the walls are punctuated with huge fireplaces and farm implements. This inn may not be authentic, but it works. A salad bar, the best part of the meal, passes the time between courses. It includes tart, homemade applesauce, sweet-sour marinated cucumbers and date butter, in addition to the usual tossed salad, cottage cheese, cranberry relish and three-bean salad. The list of main courses is short, from smoked chicken to ham, duck, steak and roast beef, with a few daily specials. The food tends to be overcooked; the Smithfield ham is usually the best choice. A mixed bag, but a pleasant place to take the family on a Sunday afternoon.
INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON -- Washington, Virginia 703/675-3800. D $14.95-$20.95. D daily. Closed Mon., Tues. MC, V. Reservations required. Free parking. Full bar.
This inn isn't local, but move it to K Street and it would be on the top rung of Washington restaurants. Virginia's local goods are inspirations for such delectables as Silver Queen corn mousse or duck with raspberries. Start with smoked trout or crab and spinach timbale, or try tiny scallops as the most subtle of ceviches. Light, true, fresh tastes are chef Patrick O'Connell's hallmark, and his presentations are artistic but not precious. A few faults here and there: The sweet little corn muffins neither mate well with the herb butter nor serve to mop up the sauce one doesn't want to leave. But that is petty in the presence of perfect rare lamb. This inn takes every detail seriously, managing a wine list of quality and a dessert cart conspicuously elaborate.
L'AUBERGE CHEZ FRANCOIS -- 332 Springvale Road, Great Falls, Virginia. 759-3800. D $15.50-$18. D daily. Closed Mon. AE, MC, V. Reservations required. Free parking. Full bar.
The impossibly busy telephone, the two-week wait for reservations, the long drive home on winding roads should be discouraging. But this endearing country restaurant satisfies despite those drawbacks and the fact that the food is rarely outstanding. What's the secret? A rustic French environment, a staff that genuinely considers its patrons' welfare, an interesting wine list, a constantly changing menu that takes advantage of the season and a fixed-price dinner that is reasonable. The pat,e may fall flat, but it is garnished with several small, homey salads; the sauce choron may add little character to the beef but both will be accompanied by excellent fresh vegetables. And the saumon souffle de l'auberge, a salmon fillet topped with pike mousse, is superb. There is an unusually good selection of pastries, but save room for the house's own ice creams.
OLD ANGLER'S INN -- 10801 MacArthur Boulevard, Potomac. 365-2425. L $5.75-$8.50, D $11.50-$17.50. L, D daily. Closed Mon. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Free parking. Full bar.
Food is simply not the point at some restaurants, and Old Angler's is one of them. It thrives on its location -- a spot just far enough to tempt one from the city. A summer evening at an outdoor table, a winter drink by the fire, or dinner overlooking a snowy scene -- such are the elements of Old Angler's romance. As for the dining, go for the fish, which is usually fresh and best simply saute'ed, perhaps with pistachios. Or share a rack of lamb or chateaubriand. Ingredients are good, but the cooking may be overdone and the sauces lack finesse. Finish with a well-ripened cheese and the last of your wine. Desserts are even more indifferent than the sauces. The tariff is high, but Old Angler's remains a lovable hideaway.
TABARD INN -- 1739 N Street NW. 785-1277. L $3.75-$6.50, D $9-$11.95. Open daily. MC, V. No reservations for lunch, required for dinner. Street parking. Full bar.
Who says you can't add apples and oranges? The Tabard Inn did, and came up with an utterly delicious tart of flaky crust with fresh applesauce topped with orange slices. The Tabard Inn also adds goat cheese and walnuts to Japanese buckwheat noodles to both of their advantages, and warm chicken to red-leaf lettuce, red peppers, peanuts and black sesame seeds in a ginger dressing for a delectable salad. But don't get the idea that this inventive kitchen, in a bright and primitively colored bottom-floor restaurant, offers only weird combinations. Its plain grilled fish can be impeccably grilled (and commendably fresh). Here is an eclectic American kitchen serving with vigor and consideration, setting tables in a sunny garden on balmy days, serving a short menu of fine fresh foods and ending meals with excellent homemade desserts like the tart or a chocolate cake just short of fudge. So what's the problem? Turnover. A chef leaves, another comes, and the cycle runs again. The last turnover left the cooking a giant step below what it had been. But if the new style of American cooking that comes by way of California is your cup of tea, and if you like your settings and service casual and uncomplicated, the Tabard Inn is worth checking to see who's doing what these days.