"I don't have time for leisurely dinners," says cabaret singer-pianist Steve Ross, explaining how lunch became one of his two hobbies, "and since I can't cook, I never try to eat in." Lunch also provides welcome opportunity in his busy life for one-on-one socializing, just as he is doing on this particular rainy noon at an Adams-Morgan restaurant. The care with which he examines the menu indicates that he is no novice.

Ross' attire for this midday meal -- seersucker suit, button-on suspenders, striped red tie and red carnation in lapel -- lends to him a 1920s look. That is altogether appropriate for his other hobby, collecting the songs of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and others of that bygone era. He performs them Tuesdays through Saturdays until the end of June at the Ritz-Carlton here. He arrived May 6 fresh from a world tour, and before that had spent four years at New York's Algonquin Hotel. August will take him back to London's Ritz, and in September he will return to New York and begin an extended engagement at the Carlyle.

"It's amazing, the power of these American songs all around the world," he says of the reception accorded his repertoire abroad, pointing out that the audiences in Sa o Paulo, Sydney, Venice, Gstaad, and London "know the songs."

Ross is no stranger to Washington. His parents gave him a 1949 Hudson Hornet upon his late '50s graduation from Gonzaga High School, and he remembers driving it to early-morning breakfasts in Maryland after late-night dance band gigs. He also recalls checking out Wild Bill Whelan's Dixie Six at the Bayou, playing ragtime piano in a Tenley Circle bar and studying Greek and Latin at Georgetown University. The seminary, the Army, drama studies at Catholic University and more years of dance-band playing carried him through the '60s.

"The piano was always a part of my life," says Ross, describing how he grew up hearing all the music he now performs. His mother, a pianist, was always either playing it or listening to it on the radio. "I thought that was what you played when you played. So I kept doing it." But except for ditties and novelty tunes, Ross had never really sung until he moved to New York in the early '70s.

He was making a living "playing piano in some disreputable bar" and coaching singers on the side. One day he was demonstrating a song to a student and the student asked, "Do you sing that well?" "Oh, no, I'm just getting it over to you," Ross replied. But the student persisted. "You really communicated something -- it was moving."

That night the saloon pianist tried a serious ballad for the first time. "I wish I could remember what the hell it was," he says. No matter, "people fell quiet and listened. It was like that first laugh for a comic -- I was hooked. I felt so powerful. My feelings and the love song sluiced through me and I realized what I could do with something quite serious. I really date my singing career from that moment."

Ross says he experiences great personal rewards in presenting programs of the songs he so loves, yet motivation springs from broader considerations as well. "I value excellence and I champion individuality, art and craft in a culture that has become very homogenized," he insists. "I'm trying to be an opponent of some things that are bland and that are low common denominators. I'm trying to show, when I sing, that these great songs are not musty, that they have specific dramatics, that they were indeed popular, that they were not rarefied. Kids fell in love to them, made love to them, got married to them. They've taken on a specialness, and in a world that is always changing they represent a pleasant, pleasurable and constant part of our culture.

"This is an age -- and this is another thing I rail against -- when people tend to become more passive. Just sit, and if something is loud enough or in primary colors, then you might get it. There is more to life than that, more to art than that, but it requires a creative listener, and you have to open up a little bit. So I'm trying to restore to music the reward of listening creatively."