The last Hot Shoppe is about to go cold.

On Dec. 2, the Marriott Corp. will shutter its Hot Shoppes cafeteria at the Marlow Heights Shopping Center in Temple Hills. It will be the end of a 72-year run for the fabled food chain, and the end of a Washington tradition that probably touched more people than the Washington Senators, the Soapbox Derby and the Pick Temple TV show combined.

For longtime Washingtonians, both customers and employees, the Hot Shoppes chain has been about social life, not just hamburgers.

In a 1986 column published in The Post, Miriam Shuster told of ending her teenage Friday nights in a Hot Shoppes booth on Gallatin Street NW, over root beer floats.

Just last month, New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote that when he grew up in Washington in the 1950s and 1960s, you knew you had reached adolescence when you managed to finish a Mighty Mo at a Hot Shoppes.

Kathy Suthard thought she had lost her job as a Hot Shoppes waitress for sure when she dumped eggs in the lap of a customer in 1951. Pat Suthard married her instead.

The atmosphere was comfortably social in every Hot Shoppes, said Paul Noel, director of operations for the soon-to-be-gone chain.

A Hot Shoppe was not "a formal sit-down restaurant," he said. "People go from table to table, wherever they see friends. Our guests interact with a lot of our employees. They look forward to seeing these people and talking to them. It's like an extended family."

The chain began with a nine-stool root beer stand on 14th Street NW, near Park Road. It was opened in the summer of 1927 by J.W. Marriott Sr., father of the current chairman of the board and chief executive officer, J.W. Marriott Jr.

The stand was an immediate hit, not only because root beer was a big seller during Washington's hot summer months, but also because the Marriotts gambled and won on a menu that included exotica such as chili and tamales.

As it happened, the stand opened on the same day that Charles Lindbergh made his famed solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Years later, J.W. Marriott Sr. told Lindbergh: "We went into business on the same day, but you got all the publicity."

The demise of Hot Shoppes is hardly sudden. The company announced in 1989 that it would slowly deep-six the chain. "There is not only competition from other chains, but many people prefer to stay home with their VCRs and pizzas," said J.W. Marriott Jr. at the time.

Marriott said that the company would retain 10 Hot Shoppes in the Washington area "for auld lang syne." But they have been dying off steadily throughout the 1990s. Marriott Corp. now specializes in hotels and senior citizen living centers.

At its high-water mark, in 1960, there were 70 Hot Shoppes -- 31 of them in the Washington metropolitan area, said Nick Hill, a Marriott spokesman.

"To my knowledge, the company does not have plans to bring back Hot Shoppes," Nick said, even though baby boomers (who grew up with and at the chain) are notorious for their sentimentality and nostalgia.

The Marlow Heights Hot Shoppes is the last to close because the leases on the other surviving stores expired earlier, Nick said.

"Obviously, this is the end of an era," said Richard E. Marriott, a son of the chain's founder and chairman of the board of Host Marriott Corp.

Hot Shoppes is the "foundation for what has become several companies," he said. The chain was "really part of the social fabric of Washington, D.C.

"Anybody over 50 who grew up in Washington, D.C., probably spent a large part of their lives hanging out at a Hot Shoppes," he said. "We're very proud of our Hot Shoppes tradition. We're sorry to see the last one go."

No sorrier than I am. The Washington of the 1960s is now just about completely kaput. Hechinger, Woodies, Kann's have all gone south -- or soon will. National chains have arrived in their place. But they don't have headquarters here, roots here, social tendrils here.

As Miriam Shuster said, "My own husband claims he first spotted me across a tuna fish sandwich." Have you ever heard such a memory uttered at -- or about -- a McDonald's?

If you like quantifiable proof, here's a persuasive piece.

Last year, I asked readers for help in locating the recipe for the sauce that Hot Shoppes used to pour over its Mighty Mo sandwiches. I received more than 800 replies -- and another 1,500 reminiscences from Mighty Mo fans whose memory buttons got pushed by the column.

But Hot Shoppes did not reign in Washington for 72 years because of sauce alone. Its staff was superb.

A few years ago, I grabbed lunch at the Hot Shoppes cafeteria at Wheaton Plaza (it closed in 1995). As I was navigating the serving line, a woman ahead of me was trying to slide her tray along. She was frail, and she was having trouble.

Not one, not two, but three employees sprang to her side, all offering to carry the tray to a table for her. She had just spent the grand sum of $5.50. But she was treated like a queen.

Thank you, Hot Shoppes, for treating us all the same way.