RECESSION, recession, recession -- it's replaced cholesterol as the topic of choice. Everyone is looking for signs of collapse.

From my mailbox I don't hear news of restaurants noticeably cutting back so much as customers being more sensitive to prices. For instance, I've been getting complaints about restaurants charging for bread; but the charges aren't new, it's new that the customers are complaining. The two most recent concerned C'est la Vie and Boss Shepherd's. As it turns out, these two District restaurants (and surely more) serve complimentary bread only with hot entrees, not with entree salads or sandwiches. Thus they charge extra for bread requested with a salad. And they've been doing it for more than a year.

At C'est la Vie, "salads come with croutons, so you don't get bread," explained a spokeswoman. A basket of six or seven pieces of black and white bread with butter costs $1.50, which seems pretty profitable given that serving bread requires no extra utensils, plates, preparation or dishwashing.

At Boss Shepherd's, an a` la carte order of bread -- three slices of Italian bread and butter -- costs 50 cents. Unlimited bread comes with hot entrees, though one reader complained to me that he was charged 50 cents for extra bread. That was a mistake, said manager John Colameco, who added that he would be glad to reimburse the complainant if he called the restaurant.

Colameco defended his restaurant's policy, "We charge for bread, that's a fact. But hey, we give away iced tea," he said.

Boss Shepherd's charges $1.25 for iced tea, and refills it for free, even by the carafe.

ON THE SUBJECT of bread, Obelisk has always made its own very good bread, but now it is better than ever. In fact, it is sensational, particularly the crunchy onion-topped focaccia. Owner-chef Peter Pastan was seen spending his August vacation watching the bread baking at Marvelous Market. Obviously he learned something.

IN THE local-girl-makes-good category, I recently heard that staffs of two Berkeley, Calif., mainstays include women who got their start in Washington. Peg Smith, one of the chefs at Chez Panisse, and Sue Conley, an owner and a chef at Bette's Oceanview Diner, both began their restaurant careers at Gallagher's Pub on Connecticut Avenue. In the mid-'70s Smith was the cook and Conley was a waitress. I knew there was something special about the Rufeburgers in those days.

Now Smith is going on to open an authentic Japanese noodle shop in San Francisco, and Conley has branched out to catering, a bakeshop and national distribution of Bette's award-winning scone mix.

YESTERDAY Ballston, today the world. Or at least another chunk of it. Slade's, the enormously popular Ballston Common restaurant, is branching out to Montgomery Mall.

Phyllis C. Richamn's restaurant reviews appear Sundays in The Washington Post Magazine.