DINNER WITH A TWIST:Does Lima (1401 K St. NW; 202-789-2800) want to be a restaurant or a nightclub? The velvet rope outside the entrance suggests exclusivity and an emphasis on drinking rather than eating, but general manager Daniel Hateminsists the new, next-door neighbor to DC Coastaspires to be a dinner destination.

"We see ourselves as a restaurant," he says, speaking for himself and three partners, including Masoud Aboughaddareh, the local club promoter known as Masoud A. "Which is the point of three floors" at Lima: a first-floor cocktail area, a 90-seat dining room upstairs and an underground lounge with a deejay booth (and its own velvet rope, with diners getting priority access). Hatem, who comes to Lima from a manager's position at the trendy Gua-Rapo in Arlington, sees the ground floor as a "buffer" between those who want a full meal and those who want to party.

En route to Lima's dining room one recent weeknight, we navigate our way through a gaggle of cute young things sipping and posing in the bar area. Milk chocolate-colored banquettes and sage-green walls greet us on the second floor, where the faces are older and the tables are set with champagne flutes, as if the only way to begin an evening here is with something festive. The prices reflect a special occasion, too, with entrees averaging $31.

The venue takes its name from the Spanish word for "lime," which finds its way into many of the dishes. "The idea is to get Latin American flavors into everything," says the Cuban-born, French-trained chef, Raynold Mendizabal-Betancourt. Most recently, he consulted at Ceviche in Silver Spring. His experience includes a two-year run at the fish-friendly Pesce in Dupont Circle.

Lima's eclectic menu is evolving -- eventually, the chef hopes to offer 20 or more seviches (up from just four now). The lineup currently runs to cumin-spiked scallops; sea bass paved with a crust of cilantro, cashews and Parmesan cheese; and filet mignon offered with Peruvian potatoes and black olives. Beef- and mushroom-stuffed empanadas are based on Mendizabal-Betancourt's grandmother's recipe, and they're delicious. The appetizer underscores another of the chef's aims: "to get as close to home food as possible."

Main courses, $24-$39.