It's interesting the way adults can get nostalgic for something they've never experienced, like a five-and-dime store where the items really cost five and 10 cents, or a date at a soda fountain.

In the same way, an afternoon spent enjoying tea at a fine hotel or other grand location seems to conjure up such feelings of comfort and familiarity that hundreds of Washingtonians, who almost certainly did not grow up with nursery teas, are now happily participating in this ritual as though they were born to nibble elegantly crustless sandwiches.

There has been such enthusiasm for afternoon tea services that hotels are competing with each other to offer more "original" tea sandwiches, more "authentic" scones, more delicate pastries and larger selections of tea.

In Rockville, the Strathmore Hall Arts Center's teas have drawn capacity crowds, even though reservations and payment are required in advance.

"We had such a waiting list last year that we've gone to two days a week this year," said docent Peggy Gable. "We have mostly women, but we also get some of the young officers from the Bethesda Naval Hospital, who meet their wives here or just come in themselves."

The image of a tea salon as a refuge for little white-haired ladies is permanently a thing of the past. While the customers are still mostly women, men and women both come to relax over a pot of tea, to talk business, hold low-key birthday or bridal shower celebrations, and socialize away from the noise and pressure of a bar.

Karen Horn, a 27-year-old travel agent, has been making the rounds of afternoon tea spots for several years with a group of friends. The women meet four times a year at a different location, with one person responsible each time for making the arrangements and sending formal invitations to the others. Horn says that the quiet setting makes it easier to catch up with each other's news.

"It's more relaxed and more civilized somehow," she says, "and it's nice to get dressed up and make more of a production out of it. It's also not too expensive."

Meeting for a "power tea" instead of a too-early breakfast or a too-long lunch is also attractive for business people. Kathryn Wellde, president of a northern Virginia-based lecture bureau, says she prefers to meet in the late afternoon instead of taking off a few hours for lunch. That way, she says "I can get the workday in first, and then take time for tea."

And Kazuko Campbell, a secretary in a downtown think tank, says that taking the time to meet friends during the afternoon, if only for a half-hour, is refreshing.

"We don't talk about business and we enjoy the quiet atmosphere," she says. When she returns to the office, "the afternoon doesn't seem to drag."

The practice of taking tea in the afternoon, along with assorted sweets and savories, was begun in order to revive flagging spirits late in the day. We credit the British, of course, for making teatime into such an elegant ritual, and whether the exact rules for a proper tea are followed or not, the afternoon tea is always referred to here as an "English" one.

At the least, it's important to capture a sense that the ceremony is both romantic and exotic. It's not hard to conjure up that feeling when choosing among brews named pekoe and oolong. Most tea services offer old favorites like Earl Grey and Darjeeling, but if you're lucky, the menu will also list Lapsang souchong, Assam or Russian Caravan.

Since the tea itself is the highlight of the afternoon, it should be served with some dignity, which means freshly brewed, preferably with each pot kept hot over an individual warmer and with silver strainers to catch stray tea leaves.

The tea service at the Jefferson Hotel on 16th Street NW was revamped six months ago to include not just new food but lace tablecloths and loose teas to replace the less honorable teabags.

"If you're a tea person, it makes a difference," says the hotel's restaurant manager Philip Smith, "having the ceremony of someone pouring your tea, and using all the utensils that go along with it."

Smith is English and it is his mother's scone recipe that's used in the kitchen now. It seems to be a traditional scone (a slightly sweet biscuit for those who aren't familiar with them), but a visit to teas around the area proved that in this city, anyway, there is no agreement on what makes a scone traditional.

The scones at the Jefferson have yellow raisins or currants, while at the Morrison House in Alexandria they have lemon and pine nuts. Joseph Nguyen, chef at the Henley Park Hotel, says that his scones change seasonally; in the fall, for instance, he serves cranberry or black cassis scones. And the textures range from biscuit- to muffin-like, while the scones at the Ritz-Carlton have a texture almost like shortbread.

The teas are more uniform when it comes to the tea sandwiches, also called "finger sandwiches," slim rectangular edibles with those loathsome crusts removed. Almost every place serves cucumber, watercress and smoked salmon tea sandwiches, lightly spread with butter or mayonnaise or smothered with cream cheese. Other sandwiches extend to turkey or ham, or a more adventurous smoked duck with lingonberry jam; at the Ritz-Carlton the sandwiches are served open-faced and beautifully garnished with tiny asparagus tips. At the tea served in the tower of Washington National Cathedral -- probably the most extraordinary place to have tea -- the offerings sometimes include savories of seafood salad in pastry shells.

Tea breads -- such as thinly sliced poppyseed, banana or date nut breads -- may also be served, and finally, little pastries, such as chocolate-dipped cream puffs, miniature flaky napoleons, and fruit tarts that are gone in two bites. It's best to just go with it.

The setting is important, but a matter of taste. Some teas -- like that of the Ritz and the Jefferson -- are served in cozy rooms of soft cushions, dark walls and low lamps. These lounges, which double as bars in the evening, are wonderful when it's wet and miserable outside, and make one more inclined to order a glass of sherry as well. When the occasion needs to be more festive, the Willard and the Henley Park have sunny rooms with high-backed chairs that help you feel more as though you are holding court with your friends -- and what's more natural when you're pouring out a cup of Prince of Wales? IN ONE'S TEACUPS

The following is a partial list of places to enjoy an afternoon tea.

CARLTON HOTEL -- 923 16th Street NW. 202/638-2626. 2:30 to 5:30 Monday through Saturday. Full tea $11.50. Includes sandwiches of watercress, tuna or egg; scones, and banana-nut tea bread.

FOUR SEASONS HOTEL -- 2800 M St. NW. 202/342-0444. 3 to 4:30 weekdays and 3 to 5 weekends. Full tea $10.25. Served in the Garden Terrace, the tea includes tea sandwiches of ham and turkey salad, watercress, smoked salmon and prosciutto; tea breads, scones and fruit tarts.

HAY-ADAMS HOTEL -- 16th and H streets NW. 202/638-6600. 3 to 5 daily. Full tea $12. Includes choice of 14 different teas, scones, strawberries and cream, pastries and four tea sandwiches of watercress, cucumber, smoked salmon and tomato and egg. Reservations suggested for parties of six or more.

HENLEY PARK HOTEL -- 926 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202/638-5200. 4 to 6 daily. Full tea $10.25. Tea is served on low tables in a sunny room off the lobby, and includes finger sandwiches of watercress, avocado, cucumber and smoked salmon; scones; and pastries and cookies, which change daily.

HILLWOOD CAFE -- 4155 Linnean Ave. NW. 202/686-8893. 2 to 4:30 Mondays and Wednesday through Saturday. Tea items can be served separately or together. Tea sandwiches are $5.95, scones $3.95 and muffins $3.25. Since the cafe is on the grounds of the private Hillwood Museum, reservations are suggested; it's best to make them two to three days in advance.There is a grounds fee of $2 per person.

HOTEL WASHINGTON -- Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street NW. 202/638-5900. 3:30 to 5:30 weekdays. The hotel will begin serving a complimentary tea to guests and visitors in the lobby Oct. 29, with tea and coffee, strawberries and powdered sugar, almonds, and dried dates and apricots.

JEFFERSON HOTEL -- 16th and M streets NW. 202/347-2200. 3 to 5 daily. Full tea is $12.50 and served with sandwiches (look for the smoked duck), cakes, cookies and scones. Continental tea is $8.50 and is a single cup of tea with tea sandwiches, cookies, crackers and a sweet mousse spread.

MADISON HOTEL -- 15th and M streets NW. 202/862-1600. 3 to 5:30 daily. Full tea served in the lobby lounge is $9.50 and includes sandwiches of ham, cucumber, cheese and seafood; tea breads; fresh fruit tarts; scones; and a choice of tea or sherry. Light tea is $7.50 and includes scone and fresh fruit tart. Tea with choice of scones or pastries is $4.50.

MAYFLOWER HOTEL -- 1127 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202/347-3000. 3 to 5 daily. "Tea for Two" is $14 and comes with a changing variety of sandwiches, scones and pastries. Also offered are "Tea for One," $7.50; tea and scones, $7.50; and tea and crumpets, $6.50. Tea is served in the pastel-toned Cafe Promenade under the sky dome.

MORRISON HOUSE -- 116 South Alfred St., Alexandria. 703/838-8000. 3 to 5 daily. Full tea $10. The Morrison only serves Earl Grey tea, along with tea sandwiches of cheddar and tomato, watercress and sour cream with cracked pepper, and a house-smoked salmon mesquite with sour cream, scones, petits fours and tea cakes. Reservations suggested.

PARK HYATT HOTEL -- 24th and M streets NW. 202/789-1234. 3 to 5 daily. Full tea $12.50. The plates of food are refilled as many times as you like, with the tiered server loaded down with sandwiches of turkey, tomato and brie, smoked salmon and watercress, golden madeleines, scones, tea breads and pastries.

RITZ-CARLTON HOTEL -- 2100 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202/293-2100. 3 to 5 daily. Light tea is $9.50 and includes pastries and fresh fruit. Full tea is $12.50 and includes raisin scones, fresh fruit, pastries, and sandwiches of ham and smoked salmon. Also at Pentagon City, 1250 South Hayes St., Arlington. 703/415-5000. Light tea $6.50; full tea $9.50.

STRATHMORE HALL -- 10701 Rockville Pike, Rockville. 301/530-0540. 1 to 3 Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Full tea $8.50; must be paid when the reservation is made. The tea is a "secret" blend, and is served with scones with cream and raspberry jam; tea breads of carrot cake, poppyseed cake and pumpkin bread; and a hot savory, usually a cornish pasty.

WASHINGTON NATIONAL CATHEDRAL -- Massachusetts and Wisconsin avenues NW. 202/537-6207. The tea is served Tuesday afternoons after special tours of the cathedral. Tours begin at 1:45. $12 (for tour and tea). Sandwiches and pastries.

WATERGATE HOTEL -- 2650 Virginia Ave. NW. 202/965-2300. On Nov. 1 the Watergate will begin serving an afternoon tea from 3 to 5 daily in the Potomac lounge, with special teas, sandwiches, scones and Watergate pastries. Price to be announced; call the hotel for information.

WILLARD HOTEL -- 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202/628-9100. 3 to 5 daily. Full tea $12. Tea is served in the Nest with tea sandwiches, scone and pastries.