Read his lips: Szechuan Beef Proper, baked stuffed lobster, whiskey steak, chicken fajitas. There's nothing like a good meal to chase those S&L blues away.

George Bush, who never met a menu he didn't like, eats out in restaurants about once a month -- more than any president in recent history. Whenever he finds himself with a free evening and a craving for Chinese food, he slips out of the White House and into a corner table for a little Yan Chow fried rice. Just like your average all-American guy.

Well, not exactly. Where the president is concerned, there's no such thing as a casual dinner on the town.

Your average guy doesn't have someone who brings special bottled water for him to drink. Or salt, pepper and sugar for his table. Or an entourage of White House staff, Secret Service and reporters in tow.

Not to mention the food taster.

Yes, Virginia, the president does have a food taster. And no, the White House will not com- ment on food tasters -- or anything else, for that matter -- when it comes to protecting the presidential palate.

But whenever the chief executive goes out to eat, there's a man in the kitchen standing over the food. Sometimes he just watches; sometimes he digs right in.

The night the First Couple went to I Ricchi, an Italian restaurant in downtown Washington, the food taster washed their plates, glasses and utensils before the meal and kept them in sight at all times; tasted every dish to be served to the president; watched as the food was put on the plates and served; and uncorked and tasted the bottle of wine reserved exclusively for the president and Mrs. Bush.

In April, right after traces of benzene were found in Perrier water, Bush joked with an audience in Indianapolis: "I'm sorry I couldn't get over here to have lunch with you today; I wasn't allowed to. On the way over I was notified that the Secret Service had found my food taster face down in the salad. Somebody had washed my lettuce with Perrier."

The Peripatetic Palate Traditionally, presidents give up public dining when they move into 1600 Pennsylvania.

Nixon occasionally strolled across Lafayette Square, Secret Service alongside, for dinner at Trader Vic's at the Capital Hilton. Ford and Carter rarely dined out. The Reagans, especially after the assassination attempt in 1981, kept close to the White House for meals. When Nancy Reagan did venture out, she favored the cloistered atmosphere of the Jockey Club.

But George Bush, determined to maintain as normal a lifestyle as possible, roars out of the Oval Office and into one of his favorite restaurants at the drop of a Daily Special.

The restaurants love it, of course. It inevitably boosts business. And it's a big thrill for other customers.

But any spontaneous jaunt is a complicated logistical maneuver for the Secret Service. His security staff gets nervous when the president goes out in public and even more nervous when he does it unexpectedly. But these excursions are safer than his announced appearances in two respects: There's the element of surprise -- what the public doesn't know can't hurt him. And he goes out to restaurants so often, they've got the drill down pat.

Number One Customer When George and Robert Tsui get a call from the Secret Service reserving Table N-17, they know exactly what to expect.

By now, the two brothers who run the Peking Gourmet Inn in Falls Church are old hands at handling the hullabaloo that accompanies a visit from the First Customer -- it's the president's favorite spot for a family dinner. Bush has been a VIP customer of the restaurant for the past five years and still stops by every couple of months: He came right before his inauguration, on the eve of the trips to Poland and Colombia, and to celebrate his son Marvin's birthday, to name a few occasions.

"They treat this, just like any other American family, as their little favorite Chinese restaurant," said Robert Tsui. "We try to be as low-key as we can."

Low-key, all things considered. The president is brought in one of the restaurant's seven doors; it varies each time and is always a last-minute decision by the security detail. There are Secret Service agents and police both inside and surrounding the restaurant. Customers are waved with a portable metal detector when they arrive for dinner. And then there's the taster ... er, make that "nutrition expert."

"When President Bush was vice president, he didn't have a nutrition expert in the kitchen," said George Tsui. "After he became president, the nutrition expert stays in the kitchen to understand what he's eating."

The president sits at a big round table in a partitioned area that has a bulletproof window installed by the Tsuis. The Secret Service waits right on the other side of the partition, and only the Tsuis and waiter Tak Chung Pang -- all wearing official pins -- are allowed past. Bush reportedly wields a mean chopstick and is partial to the Szechuan Beef Proper, a spicy shredded-beef dish with roasted sesame seeds; Peking duck; and the giant spring onions the Tsuis grow on their Virginia farm.

After dinner the president comes into the dining room to greet customers. "There's no better attraction than the number one man -- wherever you go," said Robert Tsui. "Whether they are Democrat or Republican, whether they politically agree with the man or not, they always love the fact that they're dining with him."

An "above average" tipper (20 percent), Bush pays most of the time by check, which the Tsuis cash. "The thing is, it would be abusing the privilege not to cash the check, because the check may be more valuable uncashed," Robert explained. "We cash them out of respect to the president."

But elsewhere in the country, there's at least one Bush check on display: "George Bush, Business Account, The White House" -- now hanging on the wall of Patsy Clark's restaurant in Spokane, Wash.

House Speaker Tom Foley invited Bush, who was visiting Washington state for its centennial celebration, to join him, his wife, Heather, and Environmental Protection Agency Director Bill Reilly for dinner there last fall. Foley had intended to pick up the tab, but the president pulled rank and paid the $121 bill with a check for $140.

The next morning, a newspaper article said owner Tony Anderson planned to keep and frame the check as a souvenir. "About 2 p.m. that day, a Secret Service guy showed up at the restaurant with an envelope," said Anderson. "It was a thank-you note from Bush with $140 in cash enclosed. He wanted to pay for dinner. He was insistent on it."

Anderson only had 20 minutes' notice of the presidential supper, which had been reserved under the name of an assistant to the president. There were Secret Service agents "everywhere -- 35 or 40 guys" including, said Anderson, the one who brought salt, pepper, sugar and bottled water for the table in a shopping bag. The food taster watched, but did not sample, the president's medium-rare Jack Daniel's whiskey steak. Anderson found out later that the Secret Service had been visiting his restaurant for two weeks, posing as regular customers, and had the place thoroughly staked out.

"He was a wonderful person to have as a customer," said Anderson. But having both Bush and Foley under his roof was nonetheless nerve-racking. "I was thinking, 'These guys are two of the most powerful people in the world. What if something happens?' I was actually sort of relieved when they left."

Who Are These Guys? Until it happens, no restaurant can imagine what goes into a visit from the president.

The operative word is secret.

Palm owner Wally Ganzi, who is also a personal friend of the president's, knew several weeks in advance that the Bushes would join him and his wife, Reva, along with actress Cheryl Ladd and her husband, Brian Russell, for sirloin steak, onion rings and cheesecake last November. But his staff was told only the day before, when the Secret Service arrived to inspect the premises.

"Someone should pay the Secret Service a compliment," said Ganzi. "They really try their best in every possible way. They're not rude, very courteous. They really try not to disturb your business. They don't strong-arm you." The one thing they really concentrate on is egress -- the quickest way to get the president out if there's a problem.

Christianne and Francesco Ricchi, on the other hand, got the shock of their lives when I Ricchi's owners found out they'd be cooking for a very VIP guest -- only one month after the restaurant opened last year.

"My husband approached me and said, 'You will never guess who's coming to dinner,' " said Christianne Ricchi. "The Secret Service flashed their badges and said, 'Are you the owner?' He thought it was immigration."

The couple only had two hours' notice to prepare for the presidential appearance at the dinner, hosted by former Bush speech writer Vic Gold. "Our concern was making sure that everything was absolutely perfect," said Christianne Ricchi.

Meanwhile, the Secret Service searched the restaurant, brought in bomb-sniffing dogs, stationed men outside all the entrances and on the roof across the street, and brought in the food taster, who played an unusually active role -- sampling all the food and wine.

Time and security were equally tight in May when the Bushes joined former Republican National Committee chairman Dean Burch and his wife, Pat, for dinner at La Chaumiere in Georgetown. Antoine de Ponfilly, who served the presidential party, found out at 5 p.m. that "someone important" was coming that night, but the Secret Service would not say who it was.

The Secret Service chose the private room upstairs for the president and then positioned two men on the roof, two in the back, three on the stairs and "a lot" in front of the tiny French restaurant, according to de Ponfilly. When the Bushes went up to eat, customers were inspected with portable metal detectors but didn't find out who was in the restaurant until Bush came downstairs after dinner.

It was more down-home last July at Rio Grande Cafe, the Tex-Mex restaurant in Bethesda, when Bush and fellow Texan Robert Mosbacher, the secretary of commerce, came in for quesadillas, cheese enchiladas, beef and chicken fajitas, and the specialty of the house: mesquite-broiled quail.

Manager Jerry Green noticed two police cars in front of the restaurant when he arrived at 3 p.m. Three hours later, the Secret Service toured the restaurant and picked a table for Bush in a back corner.

The food taster asked Green to point out what food would be served to the presidential party. Green pointed to the 40 pounds of beef already cooking on the grill. "He got the same old stuff that everybody gets here," said Green. "Honestly, I'm not going to change my food just for the president. But I did give him an extra quail. I figured I could do that much for him."

The party lasted two hours and everyone else in the restaurant lingered to watch Bush tackle his fajitas; since he sat facing the front, the customers could get a good look.

"Nobody would leave," said Green. "The Secret Service finally closed the door when we were filled to capacity with a two-hour wait."

After Mosbacher paid the bill with his American Express card, Green grabbed the chair Bush had been sitting in "right after he finished with it." Within two days it was back on the floor -- painted red, white and blue.

Local Boy Eats Good When Mabel Hanson of Mabel's Lobster Claw Restaurant in Kennebunkport, Maine, curls her hair, you know something's up.

"The president said, 'Hiya, Mabel. How are you? What are you all dressed up for?' " said Hanson, who just happened to be spiffed up when Bush dropped by last year. "I cried when he came -- just a few sniffles. I can't help it. It's the president coming through your door."

Mabel's has been a Bush family favorite for almost 20 years. There's a whole wall devoted to the Bushes: lots of pictures of George and Barbara, a few of George and Mabel, a portrait of the president with "He's Our George" above it and a banner from the president's inauguration -- Mabel's first trip ever to Washington.

You can usually pick out the Secret Service: They're the only guys in Kennebunkport wearing suits.

Bush sits at his favorite corner table, where he usually has lobster stuffed with sea scallops. He's "not too much for desserts" but occasionally treats himself to butter-crunch ice cream or Mabel's famous peanut butter ice cream pie.

"These people couldn't change if they tried," she said. "They're as natural as grass growing."

Earlier this month, the Bushes and daughter Dorothy Bush LeBlond went to the Breakwater Inn in Kennebunkport with Bush golfing buddy Spike Heminway, his wife, Betsy, and daughter Alex. Unlike most dinner visits, owner Carolyn Lambert got advance word when Heminway made the reservation the night before and said the Bushes would be joining them.

"It was very important to me that this didn't get out of hand," Lambert said. "I told my employees when they came in the next night, 'If you told any of your friends to come down here and hang around, call them back and tell them not to come.' "

In the morning, the Secret Service and a White House staffer showed up and told Lambert, "There need to be people in the dining room. If Mr. Bush felt you were going to lose business because of him, he would be unhappy."

The restaurant, not surprisingly, was full of the inn's regular customers and a few enterprising reporters who had wheedled reservations that afternoon for the remaining tables. Except for the food taster in the kitchen, it was a typical Sunday night dinner in Maine. The president had the pan-fried chicken breast special and mud pie.

When Bush goes to his other hometown, he usually makes a beeline for Otto's Barbecue in Houston, where he chows down on pork ribs or link sausage with beans.

On his first visit there as president, the Secret Service checked out the bathrooms and sneaked Bush through the back door into the back dining room. "But the customers knew something was up," said manager June Sofka. "Then the president came in the main dining room and shook hands with everybody. It was just exhilarating."

"I was busy running around so I didn't get my picture taken with the president. But I picked up his plate and the silverware and took it home. I still have it."