Some time ago I cut way down on caffeine and alcohol on the advice of a doctor, who said a case of the jitters was probably the result of too much of one offset by too much of the other. It was no great sacrifice, and I don't miss either, but it presented an interesting problem: What to drink with a meal?

There are plenty of decaffeinated drinks around, most of which either have so much sugar they're liquid cotton candy or have none, and taste like that smell you begin to notice about halfway up the New Jersey Turnpike. Decaffeinated coffee is a dud. Moussy, the Swiss alcohol-free beer, provided an interesting little side trip, but the stuff's more expensive than beer and hard to find anyway.

I realized after awhile that the thing most pleasing at mealtimes was plain, cold water, and plenty of it. We still have well water at home, which is superb, but even the city water is good, and for a special treat I get a 50-cent bottle of mineral water with a twist of lime in it.

The problem with water is, of all screwy things, availability, particularly in restaurants, where there's water aplenty to mop the floors, wash the dishes and make coffee, but nary a drop to drink unless you practically beg.

If memory serves, in the old days it was customary for a restaurant to provide patrons with water at meals. They may still do this in the Deep South, where change takes forever, but around here you get none unless you ask, and if you do ask you're often stared down like a bum. Obviously, restaurants prefer you drinking $1 Cokes, $2 beers or $20 bottles of wine.

The general reaction of restaurant employes to the schlemiel who asks for water, I've found first-hand, is to fix him with a withering glare, then relent and provide a teacup of warm water in a plastic container.

At Loeb's sandwich shop downtown you can get anything you want from the counter, including chilled wines, wine coolers and imported beers from a huge ice bowl placed conveniently at eye level. Soda? Sure, what size -- large, jumbo or gargantuan?

But if you want water, "You'll have to get that from the cashier."

The worst encounter of a watery kind I've had was at the Olde Towne Seafood Restaurant on Main Street in Annapolis, a place I'd recommend heartily for everything except the attitude on liquid refreshments.

The Olde Towne offers the best fried fish sandwich around for $2.59. It's fresh flounder, never frozen, a huge fillet fried just long enough to turn the opaque meat white, but not dry it out. Olde Towne also offers genuine fried soft-shell clams, sweet as butter, which you just can't find in these parts, and the chef makes his own coleslaw, which is just as sweet. But water? Shame!

The cashier looked at me as if I were a beggar when I asked. Finally, she reached behind the maze of quart-size plastic cups she keeps for serving iced tea and soda pop and extracted a container about the size of the cups they put on top of NyQuil bottles, to measure out a nightly dose.

This she filled halfway with tepid tap water.

"No," I said, "I want a big glass of cold water, to drink with my meal. This won't do."

"Well," said she, "these are the glasses we serve water in, and if you want more you'll have to come back when you're finished and get a refill."

"Look," I said, "I'm not trying to cheat you. I'll pay for it if you want. Charge me whatever you like, but I want water, and plenty of it."

In a fury, she spun on her stool and plucked from the counter behind her a beer pitcher, which she angrily filled with a half-gallon from the tap and thrust at me.

This is not the sort of scene anyone cherishes at a lunch counter, but it's what you come to expect when you are a wretched water-drinker. Maybe I should blame myself, for always hunting a good $3 lunch. But I go to expensive restaurants, too, whenever the expense account allows, and they do the same thing.

The problem, I believe, is that good, potable water is so common in the United States people have lost all respect for it. We bathe in drinkable water, for Pete's sake; we spray it on the lawn. Why would anyone drink it?

In Europe, when you ask for water with a meal you ask for something of value. The water that comes out of the tap in many European countries isn't fit to drink, so water at meals comes in a pretty bottle with a cap, ice cold, and costs a few shekels. No one turns his nose up.

Years ago I learned the value of fresh water when I was packing up the fishing skiff for a three-day camping journey to an island in the Chesapeake Bay where there was no drinking water. Initially we planned to bring wine, beer and soda pop, but with a small boat and three guys going, space and weight became a factor. We began tossing out incidentals, and one by one the sweets and the beer and liquors went, until there was nothing left but water.

We had water with our eggs in the morning; water with fresh fish at lunch and water with soft-shell crabs at night. The more we drank, the sweeter it tasted, and we never wanted for anything else.