Everyone needs to get away from shoptalk every now and then -- even if they have to go to a $250-a-head black-tie affair to do it.

Last night was the 17th annual Meridian House Ball, and 500 relaxed Washingtonians from all over the world got together to dance, mingle and leer over a sugar junkie's heaven of a dessert tray. Their presence and their donations benefited Meridian House, which provides services to international visitors and resident diplomats.

"It's the most fun party in Washington," said a guest, who described himself as "one of 6,000 consultants in town." Why is that? "Just plain fun and no one's talking politics."

Just inside the door a woman sat by herself in a chair, playing a harp. On either side of her, guests climbed a carpeted stairway in search of music, food and conversation. The cares of the week seemed far away.

"I'm fascinated," said one woman, a newly arrived Floridian. "I feel the way the woman playing the harp looks -- like a fairy princess."

The woman playing the harp was Diane Dickenson of Dallas, and she agreed. "It's just like being in a fairy tale. Washington is almost like another country."

The music upstairs, mostly standards like "Take the A Train" and "Sentimental Journey," was by the Meyer Davis Quintet. Hugh Barteman, bassist for the group, said the ball had attracted "more of a dancing crowd" this year. This he attributed to his group's music, which he described as "good and peppy."

In another room, a massive table offered a barrage of sumptuous French desserts as cre pes suzette, chocolate pa te' with pistachio sauce, tarte tatin, marbled fruits and towering croque bouche.

The guests had had their main courses at 28 embassy dinners before the ball. The dinners, like so much of what followed, got good reviews. Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), whose wife Margaret was chairman of the event, spoke highly of the salmon mousse and spinach soup they had eaten at the British Embassy, adding magnanimously, "We had several good wines, even though they weren't Californian."

At which embassy had Margaret Heckler dined? "That's a terrible question," said the health and human services secretary. "I worked late at the office and came straight here." Heckler was overheard saying she will be leaving for her post as ambassador to Ireland sometime after the first of the year. She says she will "continue my health interests abroad. I'll bring all my reports on smoking to share with my family in County Limerick."

Outside, candles cast a salmon glow on the cement perimeter of the terrace beneath the linden trees aglow with tiny white light bulbs. Gravel crunched beneath the feet of the guests.

Around the corner, some 70 chauffeurs gathered at the Ridgewell's catering truck, having a party of their own.

As one driver put it: "It's a nice night. For once I'm getting some coffee and food."

It was their night out too.