IF YOU'D LIKE to see or be in a telling documentary about the city of Washington, and do so over a salad and a beer, you come to the Cafe Rabelais -- the wide canopy over the southeast corner of Connecticut Avenue and R Street NW -- and sit. A generally friendly, young and casual-to-the-core waiter or waitress will be with you shortly, as will some reasonably priced food and drink.
Keep in mind that the food and drink are relatively unimportant, however. The passing show's the thing, and it starts every day around lunchtime; on a Friday or Saturday, it can last well past midnight. You are free to ignore the show, of course; this is also an excellent corner at which to solve the world's most pressing problems. There is no charge for any of this.
Generally, the more you want to see (rather than be a part of) the show, the further you'll sit from the sidewalk, and the closer your back will be to the brick wall of the mysterious, 10-year-old Cafe Rabelais -- which accepts only cash, is open only during D.C.'s warmer months, is not listed in the phone book, doesn't advertise, tacks a 15-percent tip onto the tab and whose French owners respond to interview requests with: "No names." Or: "Maybe next year." And: "If we get too many people, we close."
Whatever. On a sunny spring afternoon, it seems impossible to keep the Cafe's large, L-shaped outdoor area from filling up with people. And these are people of all shapes and flavors, unlike at some of the better-known outdoor eateries along 19th Street, which tend to attract a more uniform (and uniformed) clientele. Here, if you accidentally pick up someone else's jacket, you notice immediately. (Yours does not have sequins and a "U.S. Out of Salvador" button on it.)
The costume design for the documentary now showing ranges from, oh, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" through "Desperately Seeking Susan," and since there aren't a lot of tourist attractions nearby, most of what you see either lives nearby -- Dupont Circle's two blocks south, Adams Morgan is just north -- or, if it's a Friday or Saturday, is in from the 'burbs on an invigorating little thing called a date.
In the end, an hour spent here just helps put a few memorable expressions on the so-called faceless bureaucracy.
Keep in mind that if you say anything to passersby, you should expect a response. This is reality. If the concept overwhelms you, the K-B Janus quadraplex is just across Connecticut Avenue.
THE CAFE RABELAIS -- 1647 Connecticut Ave. NW. Open 11:30 a.m. to about 1 a.m. most warm days. Entrees $5 to $9.