SING HALLELUJAH, come on get happy, we're gonna chase all your cares away." After all, the work day is done; it's time for that phenomenon at five, time to relax and recharge as crush hour rushes by. And luckily for the chow hounds among us, that time it is a-changing.

Happy hour has been around since that old tailor Adam fashioned his first fig leaf, and almost since that moment it has been synonomous with cheap drinks -- 2-for-1 deals, double shots, half-price brews and other enticing discounts.

But the nationwide trend toward less drinking and lighter drinks has cut alcohol consumption. "Dram shop" liability laws in the District of Columbia and most states hold bars responsible for the misbehavior of patrons. And growing pressure against drinking and driving has added to the neo-temperance mood in the country.

So bars and restaurants have responded by shifting their emphasis from free-flowing liquor to flowing (and often-free) food. Happy hour has become hungry hour, with all-you-can-eat munchies ranging from veggies and dip to veal parmesan.

"Everyone's offering some sort of food," says Fred Rosenthal, co-owner of Jasper's restaurant in Greenbelt. "What's important is to give people a feeling of value through the quality of our hors d'oeuvres."

Creative kitchens have taken on the challenge of concocting fun finger food and gourmet bargains. Alongside regular provender such as fried chicken wings, tacos, meatballs and chunks of cheese, you can find oysters on the half shell, fried mozzarella, crab balls, fettuccine alfredo, stuffed mushrooms, sushi, oysters, barbecue ribs and Thai noodles.

It's tempting to turn munchies into a good cheap meal before the theater, or to simply make a conspicuous pig of yourself. And it can be a great way to get an inexpensive taste test of a restaurant you've wanted to try.

That's okay by folks like Deetsie Chrapaty, manager and co- owner of J.J. Mellons on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, which offers a popular after-work repast: "As a new restaurant, we've used happy hour to get people in here to sample the quality of our food. It's a good draw."

Offerings vary widely from place to place, but there are some common traits. The food is often high in protein or on the starchy, breaded or greasy side in a conscious attempt to reduce the effect of alcohol. Naturally, the establishments expect it may take another drink to wash down the "meal."

Appearing most often at buffet tables around town are easy- to-eat items such as vegetables with dip and "u-make-'em tacos" -- mini taco shells you fill with just the right combination of spicy ground beef, shredded lettuce, cheese and salsa. Popular because they aren't labor intensive for the restaurant, these snacks encourage eater participation. They are not so easy to eat. (Tuck in your ties, guys.)

Some restaurants spend up to $700 a night on their feasts (often hand in hand with higher drink prices to keep the bottom line in line). Some of the most extravagant are offered in the 10 area Marriott hotel lounges.

Don Semmler, Marriott's Washington region director of food and beverages, recently told the lounges to create a "Hungry Hour" with 16 feet of food. For $1 to $2, they provide an impressive all-you-can-eat buffet where you can "whet your appetite while wetting your whistle." Soup, a mini salad bar, plump chicken wings, hot pasta dishes, chunks of fresh pineapple and fresh melon to dip in chocolate fondue, and other savory selections create a veritable groaning board at places like the Key Bridge Marriott.

And new combinations of food and beverage are common. "Can you imagine someone having a scotch and soda and digging into a double chocolate cake? But they love it!" marvels Marriott's Semmler. (Still, you've got to be selective: You don't want gravity to make a molehill out of that mountain of victuals you've created.)

Whether you work in town or around the Beltway, a happy- hungry hour is happening near you -- from noon until two- thirty in the morning. But you're likely to have the best luck in the District, where restaurants are chock-a-block and eager to entice their lunchtime patrons back for more.

Along the "M Street Corridor" (between 18th and 20th), nearly every gathering place offers drink deals and/or free food. On Capitol Hill, bipartisan happiness flows from spending reductions along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Ad hoc fun can also be found just off those beaten paths. The Ha'Penny Lion, on the corner of 17th and L streets in the heart of the Northwest business district, has the corner on convenience. Only a block from the Farragut North Metro station, the Ha'Penny attracts soon-to-be-ha'ppy workers from dozens of nearby office buildings.

Like many Friday happy hours, the Ha'Penny's is, in the words of one harried waitress, "mayhem, standing room only, people hanging from the rafters." All breakable items -- flower vases, salt and pepper shakers -- are removed from the tables to allow plenty of room for the elbow-benders who pour in here after hours.

"Everybody's letting loose," explains manager Mark Chavez. "And we're right there for them." And, on Monday through Thursday, so are free tacos, an almost-free raw bar and cut- rate steamship round sliced before your very eyes. (Friday, with dancing until 9, is so crowded that the Ha'Penny can't safely put out hot dishes, Chavez says.)

If you've caught a late movie or are working way overtime, you're not too late for bargain bites at El Torito Mexican restaurant in Georgetown Park. "Cantina Specials" are offered from 10:30 p.m. until the wee hours of the morning Monday through Saturday. Varying each night, these specials feature all-you-care-to-eat tacos (for a small fee), a bar full of free menu entrees in miniature, such as burritos and chimichangas, as well as half-price margaritas or imported and domestic beer specials.

El Torito likes to keeps its customers entertained, too. Quaff and munch while you watch big-screen music videos (with ads for margaritas spliced in) or sidle up to the bar and try to stump the bartender at Trivial Pursuit to win a free margarita (on your next visit to this south-of-the-border oasis).

It seems happy hour can be a many-cultured thing. East meets West at Kyoko, a friendly Japanese restaurant on Connecticut Avenue just down from the Cleveland Park Metro station, where happiness means sushi at $1 apiece for selected items on the menu. Kyoko herself sees this as a great opportunity for first-time sushi eaters who fear the shame of asking for an akita bag for their entire sushi entree. You can watch the chef prepare your selection at the bar, enjoy raw pleasure with some saki or Japanese Sapporo beer, then head across the avnue to the Uptown Theater for another show.

On Sunday afternoons at the Devon Bar & Grill (20th and Pennsylvania NW), you can chase away your pre-Monday blues with 25-cent oysters on the half-shell. "You can knock yourself out eating oysters here. I'm in heaven!" beamed one patron. By Friday, you'll be hungry for more -- and so will about 400 others who will gladly help you consume more than 20 mega- chafing dishes of hot hors d'oeuvres, pasta salads, chili, cheeses and three tiers of vegetables with dip. Other week nights, "Mussel Madness" and spiced-shrimp deals draw the hungry masses.

HA'PENNY LION -- 1101 L Street NW; 296-8075. Free and cheap munchies vary nightly (no food Fridays, but there's dancing instead), selected $1 drinks every night. Monday to Thursday 5:30-6:30 p.m., Friday 5:30-9 p.m. DEVON BAR & GRILL -- 2000 Pennsylvania Avenue NW; 833-5660. Daily seafood hors d'oeuvres specials, complimentary food buffet (especially generous on Fridays). Sunday to Friday, 4 to 7 p.m. EL TORITO -- 3222 M Street NW (Georgetown Park); 342-2290. "Cantina Specials" feature free or discounted Mexican munchies (Monday to Thursday, 5 to 7 p.m. only), reduced drink prices and music videos. Monday to Thursday 4 to 8 p.m., 10:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.; Fridays 4 to 8 p.m., 11:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.; Saturday 11:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.; Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. KYOKO -- 3333-A Connecticut Avenue NW; 244-1044. $1-a-piece sushi (most items on menu). Tuesday to Friday noon to 2:30; Tuesday to Sunday 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

ALSO IN D.C. THE BOTTOM LINE -- 1716 H Street NW; 298-8488. Munchies -- sometimes free, sometimes cheap -- vary nightly and feature hot dogs, all-u-can-eat tacos, 25-cent oysters, 30-cent spiced shrimp and cut-rate drinks (no food Fridays). Monday to Friday 5 to 7:30 p.m. BRONCO BILLY'S GOOD TIMES SALOON -- 1823 L Street NW; 887-5141. Free raw oysters, spiced shrimp, taco fixin's, cheeses and fruit and other good- time grub. 99-cent drink specials vary nightly. Monday to Friday 4:30-8:30 p.m. DEJA VU -- 2219 M Street NW; 466-7378. Chafing dishes of free barbecued ribs, crab balls, a punch bowl of spiced shrimp, crudites, lots of cheese. Some Fridays, WLite radio hosts a party featuring its deejays, a free drink when you walk in the door and 50-cent beers in addition to the munchies. Monday to Friday, 4 to 7:30 p.m. HAWK AND DOVE -- 329 Pennsylvania Avenue SE; 543-3300. A vivacious, often rowdy spot where you can get a beer for a buck and tacos for free. Monday to Friday, 4 to 7 p.m. HOGATES -- 800 Water Street SE; 484-6300. Multiple dining rooms right on the waterfront. Sail into some two-for-one drinks and catch some complimentary seafood appetizers. Monday to Friday, 4 to 7 p.m. J.J. MELLON'S -- 1201 Pennsylvania Avenue NW; 737-5700. Mellow music and candlelight enhance the complimentary gourmet hors d'oeuvres, served to you by be-tuxed waiters. Across the street from the office of the mayor (apparently a regular here). Monday to Friday, 5:30 to 7 p.m. LENNY'S -- 1025 Vermont Avenue NW; 638-1313. Complimentary snacks -- chicken drumettes, homemade pizza, barbecue ribs, onion rings -- vary nightly. Discounts on second drink. Monday to Friday, 5 to 7 p.m. LORD JIM'S -- 2030 M Street NW; 296-7585. Free "funky snacks" (pork sat,e, Thai noodles) prepared by its Thai and American chefs from 5 to 8 p.m. Home of the 16 oz. draft and 16 oz. rail drink. Monday to Saturday, 3 to 8 p.m. MADHATTER -- 1831 M Street NW; 833-1495. Madhatter Tea Party features different free food each night, such as tacos, meatballs, veggies and dip, or barbecued beef. Drink prices are discounted. Monday to Friday, 5 to 7 p.m. MANHATTAN MURPHY'S -- 2020 K Street NW; 293-2322. (Formerly New York New York). This nouveau art deco club suggests a two-drink minimum for partakers of its lavish free buffet, which features four elaborate hot dishes and lots of veggies. Monday to Friday, 5 to 7:30 p.m. MIKE BAKER'S -- 1716 H Street NW; 342-6433. One of few happy hours in this part of Northwest. Complimentary food varies each night: chicken wings, steamship round, baked ham, potato skins, and baby cheeseburgers (even Popeye's friend Wimpie would be happy!) and veggies. Drink discounts to lucky members of Wednesday's "Hump Club" designed to "save our friends money, not as an excuse to overindulge." Monday to Friday, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. MINGLES -- 1400 I Street NW; 296-6686. Just before you head down the escalator at the McPherson Square Metro station, stop in for complimentary hors d'oeuvres (meatballs, tacos, pizza) that vary each night. The cheese tray is always there. Reduced drink prices. Monday to Friday, 4 to 7 p.m. PIERCE STREET ANNEX -- 1210 19th Street NW; 466-4040. Chafing dishes full of free delectables change nightly -- meatballs, chicken wings, crayfish, mussels -- plus veggies to make a balanced meal. Monday to Friday, 5:30 to 7 p.m. RECESSIONS -- 1700 K Street NW; 296-6686. Free snacks varying nightly -- spaghetti, tacos, chicken wings, meatballs and crudites. Monday to Friday, 5 to 8 p.m. RUMOURS -- 1900 M Street NW; 466-7378. Free six-foot submarine sandwiches to share, chicken wings, barbecued ribs. A great place to meet people. Monday to Friday, 5:30 to 7 p.m. WOLENSKY'S -- 2000 Pennsylvania Avenue NW; 463-0050. Free hot snacks (chicken wings and savory items in puff pastry) plus vegetables and dip are passed to imbibers at the bars. Monday to Friday, 5 to 7 p.m. MARYLAND

While Maryland doesn't have the District's concentration of opportunities, there are some pockets of post-work pleasure near the Beltway and Rockville Pike where you can keep bottlenecks in your grasp -- instead of you in theirs.

Or as one Chevy Chase computer engineer explains the attraction: "I hate sitting in the car and waiting in traffic -- I'd much rather be with friends . .. Look at it this way, you buy a beer and there's dinner."

So loosen that tie, kick back and enjoy.

Ceiling fans circulate the good cheer at Oscar Taylor's Butcher, Bakery and Bar in the Mid-Pike Plaza in Rockville. At this well-dressed eatery, you can lean against one of the wooden bars, settle into a cushioned couch, or head for a more sequestered booth to enjoy the complimentary comestibles. Theme nights range from Italian to shrimp and oysters to chili dogs.

"Fridays we just go for broke," boasts manager Dave Nolan. "Around 5 we start getting a lot of local office people, 6 o'clock the downtown crowd, by 6:30 everyone who plans to be here is here. All it takes is for someone to come here once." With a premium bar (Bacardi's the rail rum, Tanqueray the gin), happy-hour drink prices are a bargain. A "beer of the day" special will expand your label lingo, always an impressive attribute.

Over the Beltway and through the Greenway Mall lies Jasper's in Greenbelt. Here, too, the combination of complimentary hors d'oeuvres, discount drinks and convenient locale has attracted a loyal and lively crowd. Waiting in line for custom- carved roast beef, one pleased account executive readily explained his choice of establishment: "It's a great place -- inexpensive drinks, good food, the right ambience. What more can you ask for?"

Co-owner Fred Rosenthal also points to a growing selection of non-alcoholic cocktails (mocktails) as evidence that what really matters, as the matchbooks say, is "the spirit of fun." OSCAR TAYLOR'S BUTCHER, BAKERY & BAR -- 11858 Rockville Pike; 468- 6600. Prime complimentary hors d'oeuvres, discount premium bar. Check out the gourmet take-out selection catering to the carrot-cake-conscious clientele. Monday to Friday, 3:30 to 7 p.m. JASPER'S -- 7401 Greenbelt Road, Greenbelt; 441-8030. It's fun to file away some complimentary shrimp, crab or roast beef from 4 to 6:30 and circle the square center bar. Hanging plants eavesdrop on the lively conversations. Monday to Friday, 3 to 7 p.m. ALSO IN MARYLAND CELEBRATIONS -- Holiday Inn, 7200 Hanover Drive, Greenbelt; 982-7001. Food served 5 to 6:30: cooked shrimp, clams and shucked oysters for 25 cents on Monday, Wednesday and Friday; Tuesday and Thursday they "carve something" -- be it roast beef, ham or lamb -- and it's on the house. Happy hour regulars are complimentary cheese platters and discounted drinks. Brass lamps and hanging plants enhance this social headquarters for NASA workers. Monday to Friday, 5 to 8 p.m. CHATTERS -- 8300 Wisconsin Avenue, Bethesda; 656-2151. Loud music from the big-screen videos makes shouters out of the local business clientele who gather here for "Chatter Hour." Try to converse between songs and bites of the chef's free specials like French bread pizza, Mexican lasagne, steamship round (but not with your mouth full). Half-price rail drinks and discounted beer and wine loosen your tongue. Monday to Friday, 4 to 8 p.m., Sunday all day (with sports on the screens). DURTY NELLIE'S -- 4714 Montgomery Lane, Bethesda; 652-1444. Behind the Wang Building on Wisconsin, it offers a variety of hors d'oeuvres from barbecued ribs and chicken to steamed shrimp, tacos to steamship rounds, cheese, veggies and dip -- and all on the house. Monday to Friday, 5 to 7 p.m. HOULIHAN'S OLD PLACE -- 4444 Willard Avenue, Chevy Chase; 654-9020. You can tell the day by the food offerings: Italian, Mexican, roast beef signal where you are in the week. Double drinks, reduced drafts. Monday to Friday 4 to 8 p.m. MARGARITA MAGGIE'S -- Plata Grande Restaurant, 4060 Powder Mill Road, Beltsville; 572-7744. Mingle while you munch on spicy hot Mexican munchies and crisp veggies from the complimentary buffet during "Devour Hour." Tiered seating areas give good views of the dancing during happy hour. Cool off after a cha cha under the video screens with one of Maggie's magic margaritas. Monday to Friday, 5 to 7 p.m. RAINDANCER SEAFOOD HOUSE -- 12224 Rockville Pike; 468-2300. Fruits, cheese and crackers on a corner table combine with the soft lights and soft music to sooth the savage commuters who come here to "enjoy the camaraderie while avoiding the traffic for an hour or so." Discounted premium bar. Monday to Friday, 4 to 7 p.m. T.J. REMINGTON'S -- 1100 Wayne Avenue, Silver Spring; 495-0080. Just a block from the Silver Spring Metro station, this recent arrival offers great deals. A big free buffet offering nachos, three different kinds of cheeses, fruit and a hot dish of egg rolls, chicken wings or quiche go with double-shot rail drinks and discount drafts to make a meal. Monday to Friday, 4 to 7 p.m. VIRGINIA

Happy days are here to stay in VA. When ABC laws curtailed discount drinks in the Old Dominion, restaurateurs simply concentrated on the quality and quantity of their free food offerings. The competition in heaping helpings of southern hospitality is so fierce you can forget about playing the Numbers Game and get off on Route 7, 50, 66 or 123 and get a meal for a deal.

One place you can cash in is just over the Key Bridge at the Pawnshop Restaurant. Asterisked appetizers on the menu are half-price during happy hour, and the servings are generous. Nachos at an easy $2.23 are a great bargain for the office crowd. Also try the grilled shishkebab-style sat,e: skewered marinated steak and chicken served with peanut sauce. Or order some oysters from the raw bar and feel superior with your car keys in your pocket as you watch the Key Bridge traffic creep by.

If you're near Tysons Corner, Casa Maria Mexican Restaurant offers the murmur of congenial conversations spiked with the clink of margarita glasses. Play a game of backgammon and beat your partner to the plentiful free "Fiesta Cart" full of hot Mexican specialties, or go wild at the salad bar. Everyone's already addicted to the tortilla chips (supplied by the bushel).

Friday is overwhelmingly the most popular night to get happy, and Tysons Corner's lief in more ways than one. On the first level of the Tycon Courthouse Building (the one with the horseshoe loop entrance), this eatery sports waiters in badges marked B.A.D.D. (Bartenders Against Drunk Driving). "We want our customers to have a good time, but we're liable for it," explains one waiter. So, rather than inviting a hangover on Saturday, they invite you to fill your plate with tacos, chicken wings or pizza from the free food bar. Friday's decor will remind you of grandma's attic, but with all the heirlooms up on the walls. PAWNSHOP RESTAURANT -- 1911 Fort Myer Drive, Arlington; 522-7400. Near the Rosslyn Metro station, just over Key Bridge. "Cocktail Hour" includes selected half-price appetizers and discounted drinks. With three busy bars and plenty of dark wood tables, settle in anywhere and enjoy. Monday to Friday, 5 to 6:30 p.m. CASA MARIA MEXICAN RESTAURANT -- 1915 Tysons Corner Shopping Ceter; 893-2443. A large selection of eats and reduced-price drinks let you make a meal at the restaurant's extensive Fiesta Cart. Monday to Friday, 4 to 7 p.m. Check your phone book, by the way. Most likely there's another Casa Maria's near you serving up a good time. T.G.I. FRIDAY'S -- 2070 Chain Bridge Road, Tysons Corner; 556-6160. A traditional place to celebrate the week's end. Come for the crowd -- and the free eats: veggies and dip to quiche, tacos to chicken wings. Monday to Friday, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. TALSO IN VIRGINIA CARNEGIE'S -- Mark Center, 1700 North Beauregard Street, Alexandria; 820-4432. Yes, there is life outside of Old Town. Help yourself to chili, cheese and crackers, veggies and dip and daily specials ranging from Monday's pizza to Thursday's stir-fried chicken, all free with the exception of Wednesday's raw bar. Imbibe and interface at this office connection. Reduced-price drinks. Monday to Friday, 4 to 7 p.m. CHADWICK'S -- 203 South Strand, Alexandria; 836-4442. Upstairs, downstairs, you'll find complimentary munchies including pasta, meatballs, chicken wings and nachos. Monday to Friday, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. FEDORA CAFE -- 8521 Leesburg Pike, Vienna; 556-0100. Near the Embassy Suites Hotel on Route 7. Savor the complimentary fare to the strains of piano music and feel the day magically wear away. Monday to Friday, 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. HENRY AFRICA -- 607 King Street, Alexandria; 549-4010. Brass and class surround this art-deco establishment where free hot hors d' oeuvres, fried shrimp and cold cuts await you. Tuesday to Friday, 5 to 7 p.m. THE VIEW LOUNGE -- Key Bridge Marriott, 1401 Lee Highway, Arlington; 524-6400. One of the new "Hungry Hours" at the 10 D.C.-area Marriott hotels. One dollar and you've got more than you can eat, with a terrific view of the Potomac and the lights of Georgetown thrown in. Monday to Friday, 4 to 8 p.m.

Mary Luders and Maria Mudd last wrote for Weekend on apres-skate hot spots.