Time had, it seemed, gone backward. As car after car pulled up to the Foxhall Road home of legendary hostess Gwendolyn Cafritz last night, what everyone referred to as "old Washington" emerged.

Inside the house, the whole poached salmon, the small mountain of roast beef, were identical to the ones prepared by Ridgewells for Cafritz's last big party in 1978. The band was the same, and Ridgewells had even brought the man who announced guests at that party out of retirement to work this one night.

Eight years after her last party, 30 years after millionaire Cafritz and rival partygiver Perle Mesta jousted for the best guest lists, 40 years after many of the 300 guests first drank cocktails on the Cafritz terrace with the view of all Washington, Gwen Cafritz was hostess again.

"Such de'ja vu!" one guest exclaimed as Chief Justice Warren Burger, Challenger commission chairman William Rogers, arts lion Patrick Hayes, socialite Oatsie Charles, Sen. Barry Goldwater, the regulars from the old crowd passed by. From the name of the hostess to the faces of the guests to the old-fashioned engraved invitation announcing "Mrs. Gwendolyn D. Cafritz At Home from six until eight o'clock," it was a trip back into Washington social history.

"It's fun to see a lot of old friends again," the 76-year-old Cafritz said from the yellow satin chair in the art deco living room, where she received her guests. Her dress a puff of purple satin, her lips deep red, her hair rolled round her head as it always was, ink black as it always was, she shook each arriving hand with a faint, delicate clasp.

She said she did not remember when it was she last entertained.

"I've seated dinners of 22 any number of times. When was it we had the Windsors?" she asked the maid who stood behind her.

"That was a long time ago," the maid murmured. "1963, '64."

Then another friend. "Gwen! Do you look knockout!"

Out on the terrace former OAS head Alejandro Orfila said, "This was the place 20 years ago. She used to give magnificent balls, magnificent dinners. The parties were out of this world."

Those kinds of parties, Orfila said, no longer exist.

"The city has changed a great deal," said Orfila, who has known Cafritz, the widow of real estate magnate Morris Cafritz, for 30 years. "It was the time when a lavish party was very well received by people. When Iranian Ambassador4) Ardeshir Zahedi was here, then nobody would eventually make a criticism because the party was too lavish or too spectacular or too many people. Now I think that would not be the case."

He then offered up the Orfila cyclical theory of Washington society.

"There are times when embassies become more the centers of activity in society. Sometimes it's local people like Gwen Cafritz. Some other times it's business people. Now we are in the time of the charities -- you have the Symphony Ball, the canine show of the other day. It's a very hard economic time for developing countries. Then, people were not saying, 'What poor taste. Why is he doing that when people are dying from terrorism or starvation?' "

Cafritz parties were always known for three things: good food, a "good mix" and good weather. She had two large parties every year, one around Easter and the other just before the Supreme Court reconvened in October, in addition to all those dinners for 22. Like Mesta, Cafritz was never one of the publicity-loathing Georgetown hostesses, but rather something of a celebrity herself. The Mesta-Cafritz feud kept society writers busy for years, and when in 1957 Cafritz appeared at a Mesta party and was photographed shaking her hostess' hand, the event was reported with the seriousness usually reserved for East-West arms accords.

All this was years after Cafritz lost one dramatic round with Mesta when Harry Truman, a longtime Mesta friend, became president.

Always eccentrically outspoken, Cafritz later said of Truman, "Sometimes I think he deliberately set out to deceive me. I used to see him at parties when he was in the Senate and he was dull, dull. So naturally, I never invited him or Mrs. Truman to my parties because I was sure they wouldn't be interesting guests. Who would have thought he'd ever get to be president?"

But according to Constantine Stackelberg, who went to his first Cafritz party in 1941, "Perle was nothing to her. Gwen's parties were always more fun."

Before the party, guest Virginia Miller said, "There's not that big entertainment [now]. Parties are smaller, more intimate now. Entertaining has become so much more difficult than it used to be, and more expensive. I think it's more difficult to get help. Certainly, you can go to a very fine caterer and have everything done, but that's a very, very expensive deal."

But while Cafritz obviously has no problem with either "help" or caterers, even she finally had to slow down. Morris Cafritz died in 1964. By the early '70s, poor health had forced his wife to cut back on and finally halt her social career. Now, she is rarely seen out.

As entertaining fashions have changed, the Washington social cast did too, and Reagan-era guests like USIA Director Charles Wick and his wife Mary Jane wandered through the house as first-time guests, marveling at the view and the downstairs room known to friends as "The Club." With black and white deco murals and a dance floor lighted from below, "The Club," saw the Duke of Windsor and his wife Wallis dance with Washington. Upstairs, Truman's vice president Alben Barkley (a close runner-up to Truman in the social stakes, but not close enough) once celebrated his marriage. And year after year, almost every senator received at least one invitation to dinner, and attended.

"I think it's wonderful to have it go one more time around," said Hayes, who had been coming to the Cafritzes' for 40 years.

"I haven't called anyone for days because I knew I'd see them here," said Jayne Ikard.

"It was absolutely marvelous to see Gwen do it again after all these years," said society grande dame Oatsie Charles. "I got my white gloves out -- one never has a need to wear them anymore. I'm just sorry I don't have my big black hat. I suppose it rotted away years ago."

Cafritz first announced she wanted to have a party in April and chose Mother's Day for the date, but the engraved invitations and the Ridgewells schedule forced her to postpone it.

"It's an exact re-creation of the last party she had," said Jeff Ellis, Ridgewells' president. "We went through the records -- thank God, Mrs. Cafritz had hers; ours don't go back that far. We got the same liquor, we got the same food. We even had these tied the same way," he said, picking up a napkin wrapped around a fork and knife. "The same Belgian damask napkins."

The white tablecloths, the mountain of roast beef, were relics of another age in catering, Ellis said. "Some people like what's upstairs, the traditional style," he said, sitting in "The Club." "But it's a dying breed. Now, everyone wants to be different. You'd have crisscrossed ribbons on the tablecloth now. You'd have crazy flower arrangements. They wouldn't have the roast beef piled up like that. They'd say, 'I want blackened whatever.' "

But no blackened whatever last night, not for Gwendolyn Cafritz.