THE BIG CONCERN in Howard County, after work, the long drive or a longer week of both, seems to be: Can we talk? The big answer is, of course: Yes -- because good places to talk are found everywhere among the rolling hills and matching highways of this borderline suburb.

This could be because, in recent years, the county north of Montgomery and Prince George's and south of Baltimore has evolved far from its bedroom-community status -- and is now a firmly established living-room community.

Moreover, after dark in both new-town Columbia and old- town Ellicott City (where people from Columbia go to buy stuff to make their new-town homes look old), the streets are not just well-stocked with good places to talk. There are also places to dance -- and to stroll, especially in fair weather. They're just not all that easy to find, especially in Columbia -- where some of the streets get their names, and apparently their often- imaginative routes, out of J.R.R. Tolkien.

In fact, one of the reasons people talk so much in Columbia nightspots is many of them are giving each other directions.

Probably the most accessible nightlife in the county, geographically and otherwise, is on the manmade shores of Lake Kittamaqundi (pronounced: the lake) in Columbia's Town Center -- a traffic light or two from both of the city's best-known landmarks: Merriweather Post Pavilion and the Mall at Columbia.

Frequently, the best part of a warm-weather evening at the lake comes after dinner -- or at least out back of Clyde's, the Rusty Scupper or the Columbia Inn, amid the generous sidewalk space and ubiquitous seating there -- when the lakefront bandshell is commandeered by bands of all kinds, courtesy of the local Columbia Association.

The bandshell attractions, which range from pop to big band to folk to brass, explain why most lakefront eateries don't offer much live music inside (except the Keys Lounge at Columbia Inn, which currently brings in top-40ish acts five nights a week for your dancing and listening pleasure).

When there is no free live music in the bandshell, the lakefront is still well-attended until late -- by couples (on foot and bench), by after-work groups of people who tell humorous stories about things like modems and response times, and by ever- present knots of the indigenous species Columbianus Teen- Ageris, identified by a tendency to slouch and/or sprawl for indefinite periods, during which most appear not to be listening to each other, and after which most flee in an automobile provided by elders back at the nest.

Aside from the lakefront, neighborhood-type nightspots are also prevalent in Columbia -- which is, after all, made up largely of disparate "villages," each with its own geopolitical infrastructure, whatever that is, but mostly with at least one local hangout.

Most of these are quiet, comfortable and burger- sandwich-prone, such places as JK's Pub at Wilde Lake Village Center. Other spots offer entertainment -- the Last Chance Saloon at Oakland Mills Village Center, for instance, with its semi-ambitious folk and jazz schedule. Still others are just fun; here the Hobbit's Glen comes to mind.

Hidden away at a semi-private country club off Route 108 just north of Columbia proper, Hobbit's Glen is a quiet, open-to- the-public restaurant most hours of the day. After 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, though -- and particularly Friday night -- things begin hopping. It's a relatively small room (soon to be expanded), but it's generally filled with decidedly over-25, well-dressed (tennis whites okay) Columbia couples and singles, many of them squeezed onto the tiny dance floor in front of such semi-automated -- but surprisingly lifelike -- top-40 acts as local favorite Frank Roberts and Friends.

In any case, most of the women look like the type whose husbands would write letters about them to Ivory Soap, and everyone else seems to be pretty happy with their table partners, if not their complexions. Even the waitresses sing along with the band. Even at 1:15 in the morning last Friday, when every place else down at the lake was dead.

You wouldn't want to wait that late to get to old-town Ellicott City -- about 10 minutes northeast of Columbia. The city is picturesque and walkable even at night, even after the Fire of '84, but it is generally a more subdued, dinner-oriented nightlife. There are several meeting/gathering spots on Main Street -- the Phoenix Emporium being probably the youngest and most casual, Sidestreets the most rustic, Cacao Lane the most sophisticated and Georgetown-like and PJ's the only one with live music (usually acoustic, guitar-oriented acts).

The closest thing to a Hobbit's Glen in Ellicott City is found out on Route 40 in Chatham Mall, in a huge, relatively new saloon called G. Wilikers. Unlike the one at Hobbit's Glen, though, this is a much younger crowd -- higher heels, handier ID cards, fewer shirt buttons in use, many more stand-alones scanning the room. In spirit as on the map, G. Wilikers is closer to suburban Baltimore than either Columbia or historic downtown Ellicott City.

Anyway, if you're ever out this way -- regularly, or just for Huey Lewis at the Pavilion -- you might consider two things.

First: Consider yourself lucky if the Maryland state police officer who shines his flashlight in your face at a not-untypical Route 29 sobriety checkpoint says: "We just wanted to make sure you're not sober." Because then he will look embarrassed, say to himself, "Yeah sure, I'm okay." And wave you on.

Second: Consider checking with the Greater Howard County Chamber of Commerce (301/730-4111) or the Howard County Tourism Council (301/730-7817) for complete lists of dining and nightlife possibilities. For a less complete, more opinionated lounge-oriented list, consider this: COLUMBIA LAKEFRONT

CLYDE'S -- Teacher's Building, Lakefront. 301/730-2828. Polished brass, good wood, good view, good friends. We should be so comfortable in heaven.

COLUMBIA INN -- Wincopin Circle. 301/730-3900. Three rooms: Keys Lounge, which has live music Tuesday-Saturday, the elegant Waterside restaurant, and Peppers, with its Friday-night Mexican buffet.

THE LIBRARY -- Lakefront North. 301/730-0111. A fancy, low-light, high- tech-type disco -- in which to meet, with any luck and something of a wardrobe, people who are likewise. After 9, a $2 cover weekends, and $2 for men only Tuesday nights (which is ladies' night, ahem ahem).

RUSTY SCUPPER -- Wincopin Circle. 301/992-0030. Blonde wood, blonde cocktail waitress in standard knit shirt and preppie shorts, exposed beams, raw bar. COLUMBIA ELSEWHERE

ALLVIEW INN -- 9502 Route 108. 301/730-8890. A plain old family restaurant early, a plain old local hangout later. Good crabcakes.

HILTON INN/COLUMBIA -- 5485 Twin Knolls Road, off Route 175. 301/997- 4488. Two restaurants (one fancy, with a piano player) plus The Club, a dress- up disco.

HOBBIT'S GLEN -- 11130 Willow Bottom Drive (off Harper's Farm Road, off Route 108, etc.) 301/730-8577. Bands Thursday-Saturday, 9 to 1:30.

JK'S PUB -- Lynx Lane, Wilde Lake Village Center. 301/730-8444. The epitome of the nice-looking, built-for-conversation Columbia neighborhood bar. Burgers.

LAST CHANCE SALOON -- Oakland Mills Village Center. 301/730-5656. Acoustic/jazz act most weekends (including Mountain Laurel May 24-25) in a bright, pine-toned place a lot of folks walk to. Soups. Sandwiches.

RED ROBIN -- Route 175 and Dobbin Road. 301/997-4440. More burgers, different village center.

SNEAKERS -- Long Reach Village Center, off Route 175. 301/730-2208. Rock bands sometimes, most times a game on the tube, jerseys on the walls and the customers, and New Jersey on the tongue of the guy in the back badmouthing the Lakers. ELLICOTT CITY

CACAO LANE -- 8066 Main St. 301/461-1378. Most come here for a romantic dinner; many stay much later.

G. WILIKERS -- Chatham Mall, Route 40 west of Route 29. 301/461-2020. Once inside this sprawling place, you'll understand how such a big parking lot can be so crowded so late.

PHOENIX EMPORIUM -- 8049 Main St. 301/465-5665. Early crowd sits down for the crabcakes, late crowd stands up to see better.

PJ'S PUB -- In the Tiber Place Mall, 8307 Main St. 301/465-0070. Live music some nights in an airy, family-oriented place.

SHANNON'S SALOON -- At Village Green, Route 40 west of Route 29. 301/461-4588. Good sandwiches; friendly, casual crowd.

SIDESTREETS -- Tiber Alley (off Main Street). 301/461-5577. If you can find this place, get the prime rib.