I SPENT my summer, in case you were planning to ask, driving nearly two thousand miles in search of the best country inns within an hour's radius of Washington. I drove through roads shaded by apple trees, past cornfields, and by dozens of stands selling just-picked tomatoes and peaches. After long, cool green rides we would stretch and shake the city out of our hair, anticipating a taste of the American heartland.

It wasn't there. The few restaurants which, in retrospect, seemed worth a detour were, almost without exception, French. In twenty-three exception, French. In twenty-three restaurants we found fresh corn on the cob only three times - and one of those times, it was gone before 9 p.m. when our dinners were finally served. We did find fresh applesauce once, and several times fresh summer squash or zucchini.

Down-home dishes like chicken a laking and apple pie were generally best ignored. "Homemade" often translated into "defrosted on the premises." In those Colonial parkors and Victorian sun porches where we ate, we developed a few rules that, had we known them before we started, would have saved out stomachs a good bit of anguish.

We learned never to trust a waiter or waitress under 30 who tells you the food is fresh or homemade; these may be unfamiliar terms to some youths. We learned to beware of restaurants with views of mountains, or of rivers; you may be expected not to notice what is on your plate. We learned that price and quality are unrelated terms; the same goes for homemade and edible. If anything in a country inn can be sweetened, it will be; and even if it can't be sweetened, it will be. Avoid American-style inns with menus written in French or in dialect, or that promise your dishes will be "cooked to perfection." When in doubt, choose a restaurant called l'auberge. Remember that if a town has a good inn, the second one is likely to be pretty good, too. Finally, when ordering, keep in mind that Simplest is Safest. VIRGINIA

L'Auberge Chez Francois

332 Springvale Rd., Great Falls [1]

759-3800

Open Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 9 p.m., Sunday, 4 to 8:15 p.m. Closed Monday. BA, MC, AE, Reservations.

Other inns could learn a lesson from Francois' move to the country. The restaurant is even more popular than when it was in the city; in fact, reservations must usually be made two weeks in advance. A survey of the other inns made the reasons for Francois' success obvious. Yes, the public really does recognize - and support - good food. The anticipation at L'Auberge Chez Francois begins as you walk up to the door of this stuccoed and beamed replica of a French provincial inn. The kitchen window is open to the front and its excitement is transmitted to the diner. On a pleasant evening you have drinks in the garden. Inside, a table of tarts and cakes as the entrance tempts you to finish all your dinner. As crowded as Chez Francois gets, its service is prompt and efficient, far from grand, but it accomplishes the job comfortably. And the dinners, which have a fixed price averaging about $11 for appetizer, main course and salad, range from the familiar steak with peppercorns (perfectly cooked, flamed at the table, in a limpid brown sauce flavored rather than overwhelmed with pepper) to the unusual salmon souffle Paul Haeberlin (a moist filet of salmon topped with a thin puff of a souffle, in a pool of rich cream sauce). In summer there will be soft-shell crabs, in winter heavy Alsatian stews. I have heard complaints about the food and I have found the veal scallops pounded within an inch of their life. But the smooth, flaky crusted quiche and the intense shrimp bisque are raised above cliches, the tarts and napoleons and crisp and delicate enough so you can remember why such indulgences were invented and the ivory-tinted Alsatian liqueur mousse is a cloud of perfume.Besides carefully picking a wine list, with several good buys at under $7.50, but strong temptations for $15 to $20, Chez Francois goes to the trouble of serving excellent breads, buttery vegetables recently acquainted with the garden, interesting potatoes and salads of quality. Copper serving dishes suit the decor, which is a simple matter of primitive murals and pottery, copper utensils hung against the stucco, and - the cleverest touch of all - windows left open to the country air in good weather.

The Green Tree

15 South King St., Leesburg [2]

703/777-7246

Open Monday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday buffet, 6 to 9 p.m., Sunday brunch, 12 to 4 p.m. No credit cards. Reservations.

promises, promises. The Green Tree sits gracefully on a street of handsome brick storefronts. Its brick-floored entry hall leads to rooms papered in vibrant colors, lit with tall white tapers on tables of rich patina. Waitresses wear ruffled caps and long dresses, serve you considerately. This is a serene and comfortable world. The menu tempts. An appetizer called Grand Pere instructs, "First one needs a pear that teeters on the brink of being ripe. It must be almost ripe, but still very firm." Canned pears, the waitress admits. Hampton crab, the meu explains, was once made with just-picked crabs and theirs "can make this eveing memorable." Not with all that mushy frozen king crab, I say. It's not that a good meal is impossible at The Green Tree. In fact, if you start with a sezerac or with champagne and orange juice, go on to the stuffed mushrooms or the delicately tart green herb soup, the order a main dish called Robert's Delight - rolled thin-sliced beef that winds up a kind of stroganoff - it will be a rather delicious evening. The homemade breads are slightly sweet and very nice, and the vegetables are commendable. But the duck was hardly short of inedible, being stringy and drenched in a thick, bland gravy. The curried chickens was similary floury, but not as bad as that Hampton crab, which was over-whelmed by pimiento. One out of four is not such good odds for main courses that cost $5 to $10.Desserts, all homemade, give you better odds. When dinner runs over $15 a person, it should be a better bet.

Laurel Brigade Inn

40 West Market St., Leesburg (3)

703/777-1010

Open Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 8 p.m., Sunday, noon to 7 p.m. No credit cards. Reservation recommended on Sunday. Closed Monday.

After the Laurel Brigade and Ye Olde Cozy Restaurant in Thurmont, Maryland, I began to think that the cheaper a county inn was, the better it was. Dinner at Laurel Brigade, from soup through dessert, costs $4.50 to $10. A glass of white wine costs only sixty cents. For such prices you get what the menu describes aptly as "Colonial Cookery for Gentle Palates." Parts of the building date from 1766, as one might guess from the deep-set windows and door-ways, the wide floorboards. Waitresses bustle bustle you through your meal, looking after you like mother hens.The best of the dishes are simple, from the fried chicken barely coated with floor, to the real country ham. Rolls are hot and yeasty, mashed potatoes terrific. The kitchen does well with these starchy foods, but then tries to turn everything into a starchy food. Thus, the crab cakes taste like crab-flavored bread, and creamed dishes are gloppy. The homegrown vegetables are unfortunately overcooked. But all this is marking time to dessert. There might be a buttery shortcake made with fresh fruit and thick whipped cream, a puckery apple betty with hard sauce, a flaky tart filled with a drift of custard. They taste as if baked specially for a church bazaar where every cook in town tried to show off.

The Inn

Route 7, Purcellville (4)

703/338-6088

Open Monday through Saturday, noon to 8:30 p.m., Sunday, noon to 8 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations preferred.

Past the tractor showrooms and fast food restaurants of Purcellville the scenery improves, with Victorian turrets and balconies and deeply shaded porches. Then there is the Inn, bordering on a golf course, the cords of cut wood hinting or roaring fires inside. No such luck for us. Dinner in the upstairs rooms wouldn't have been so bad, even with the plastic flowers and Nouveau Colonial draperies. But we had to eat in the basement. The candle on our table didn't fool us; it was just a basement. The fireplaces didn't change it; it was a basement, a very noisy basement, with the owner watching television and newspapers stacked up on a desk and three chianti bottles hanging from the ceiling in a desperate attempt at decorating. A fresh-faced young waitress lied through her teeth when she described the frozen fruit cocktail as fresh. The vichyssoise tasted like watery instant potatoes with freeze-dried chives. The chicken kiev had a crust of what looked like freezer burn. And sugar was added to everything to give it some flavor. The stuffed shrimp was sweet - and had the shells left on for texture. The relishes were cloying. The salad dressing was sugary. Only the corn on th cob wasn't sweet. The "homemade" pie were gummy, the rum cake a barely flavored sponge. With main courses from $6 to $9.5 (including soup or juice), you should wind up spending nearly $15 a person with drinks and tips. The price of sugar hasn't gone up that much.

L'Auberge

U.S. 50, Middleburg (5)

1703/687-6139

Open Saturday and Sunday, noon to 9:30 p.m. Thursday through Tuesday, 6 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Wednesday. No lunch on weekdays. BA. Reservations recommended.

Start early in the day, not because Middleburg is so far, but because it always seems to take so long to eat at L'Auberge. The one and a half hour wait for our appetizers was repeated in the experiences of friends. But if any food in this investigation was worth waiting for, the food at L'Auberge was. Mousse of striped bass, fragile and rich, was moistened by creamy beige sauce tasting the essence of seafood. Cream of watercress soup was equally subtle, rich and pure in flavor. It was the cream; it tasted as if ti came from pampered cows. L'Auberge bakes its own French bread, makes tis own finegrained pate (unfortunately overwhelmed by cloves and salt on our visit). It excels in its sauces - bearnaise and italienne on sweetbreads (each better alone rather than as neihbors on the plate), bearnaise on the impeccable rack of lamb, honey and lemon on the duck (which was unfortunately dry and chewy). Salads, vegetable garnishes and potatoes show consideration. The wine list is small, and one of our choices simply never was served, but a decent bordeaux can be found for $8.50. For dessert, the chocolate mousse and cream caramel are fine, but the ice cream with brandied freash peaches outshone them. Memorably sophisticated food, it is served in a spacious garden or in tiny, delicately pretty rooms with e ceilings elaborately curlicued and fireplaces leading to double chimney stacks. This gracious Southern mansion, built in 1824, is worthy of its menu. Fifteen per cent t gratuity is automatically added to the bill, maybe because the service is so lackadaisical. Main courses average $9, appetizers $2.25. A full dinner can be expected to run $20 a person.

Red Fox Tavern

Middleburg [6]

703/687-6301

Open Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., BA, AE. Reservations.

In the last 250 years, the Red Fox Tavern has had its ups and downs, and fortunately this is one of its ups. The dining and guest rooms have been repaired and refurnished so beautifully that you may want to stay the night once you look around. The main dining room, warm and dim and smelling faintly of wood fires, could pass for a European tavern. With white walls and dark beams, just enough copper pots and brica-brac over the outsized fireplace, the room is handsome and comfortable enough to spend the evening. But with rapid, well-rehearsed if not experienced, service, you are likely to dine in much less time than at L'Auberge down the street. Menu choices are fairly simple: steaks, prime ribs, fried chicken, pork chops, country ham and three crab dishes. Prices for those main dishes run $6.50 to $10.50. Less routine is the wine list; not only is the range wide and fairly priced, it offers a choice among several house wines, from Blue Nun to beaujolais. The only appetizer I found worth noticing was the peanut soup a creamy broth milder than you might expect. Main courses, to their credit, were simple, the crab imperial contained little other than crab, mayonnaise and capers. They know how to cook a steak properly and to bake a potato without foil. They serve some delicious stewed tomatoes and cooked carrots, bother to find ripe tomatoes for their salads and serve their little loaves of brown-and-serve bread hot. The meals are good, plain food, with flourishes reserved for the desserts.

The whipped cream on the pie itself needs no improvement, nor does the light homemade cheesecake. You are likely to spend over $15 a person at the Red Fox Tavern, but you could hardly find a more pleasant place to eat a good steak.

Lazy Susan Inn

U.S. 1, Woodbridge [7]

703/494-6311

Open Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. BA, MC, CB, AE. Reservations.

Here is an example of the "dish 'em up anything 'cause they'll never know the difference" school of serving the public. The Lazy Susan Inn started out with a fine view of the Potomac and added a lot of deficits. Trains, fire engines and coaches rust in the yard. The glassed-in porch which is the main dining area looks like summer camp, except for the few old knicknacks scattered around. If our experience was typical, you might as well stick to the soup adnd salad bar; everything else tasted burned or waterlogged or stale or bland or over-sweetened. Even the coffee was burned. The baked potato was burned on the inside, obviously having been overcooked in a microwave oven. The "Pennsylvania Dutch" dishes tasted as if they had been baked in Cheez-Whiz. Even the roast beef was sloshed with a peculiarly sweet juice. We would have liked to finish the apple cheese pie because it had possibilities, but the crust was strangely chewy. Dinners ranged from $5 to $9, But I've had better at summer camp.

Cedar Knoll

George Washington

Parkway, Mt. Vernon [8]

360-7880

Open Monday through Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday, noon to 8 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations requested.

Such a pretty white clapboard house set in a mianicured garden edged with flowers! Such a stunning view of the river! You could leave it at that and not miss anything important. Inside, Cedar Knoll looks like a recreation room, so unless you have a window table, there is not enough to keep your eyes occupied if your dinner takes, as ours did, three hours. The food tastes like banquet food. For $7 to $10 you get a cup of soup - said to be "freash home made" but tasting like leftovers. You may go on to a heavily breaded wienerschnitzel with a little cup of canned tasting gravy, a sawdust-textured plantation chicken breast with a dab of stuffing, a chewy and oversalted broiled seafood platter doused with paprika and swimming in butter, or maybe the safest, a steak, large adn rare and bland. Dinner comes with puffy rools and a scioop of cheese spread, "fresh buttered vegetable of the day" (in our case, frozen peas) and "Belgium escalloped potatoes with almonds in cream). Desserts are extra and hardly worth the time or money. Better to spend your time taking a last walk through the garden.

Evans Farm Inn

1696 Chain Bridge Rd.,

McLean [7]

356-8000

Open daily, noon to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m. AE, MC, DC, BA. No reservations.

It is not really old, it is not really in the country, but one does not really notice such things at the Evans Farm Inn. The forty acres are green and rolling, with machinery and statuary set among the flower gardens and fruit trees, goats adn sheep and ducks roaming through the yards. The stone house is floored in flagstone, the walls punctuated with huge fireplaces and farm implements. It may not be authentic, but it works. Unlike the other suburban inns we tried, the staff here was spirited and and efficient, and a salad bar was the best part of the meal, you might want to return to it often. There was tart home-made applesauce, sweet-sour marinated cucumbers and date butter in addition to the usual tossed salad, cottage cheese, cranberry relish and three-bean salad. The list of main courses is short, from smoked chicken ($5.50) to ham, duck, steak and roast beef, with a few daily specials; hardly costs more than $8.50. And hardly anything was not overcooked. Even the roast beef came overdone, though when I sent it back, they managed to discover a a rare slice. The duck was crisp but stringy, the smoked chicken only faintly smoke-seasoned and dull. Smithfield ham, beingauthentic, was the happiest choice. Alongside comes spoonbread the texture of oatmeal and some vegetables that were recognizably fresh.Desserts tended to be too sweet, but the apple crisp was nevertheless worthy of the farm setting. A mixed bag, but a pleasant place to take the family on a Sunday afternoon.

Old Angler's Inn

10801 MacArthur Blud.,

Great Falls [10]

365-2425

Open Monday through Friday noon to 10:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 10:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations.

The most remarkable thing about Old Angler's Inn is that it exists. Not far from the city line, backed up against the woods, the century-old inn was restored twenty years ago as a restaurant. There is an inviting patic for good weather, and the first floor of the rastaurant is a bar, very dim and very cozy. Beyond that, the restaurant could use still more restoration. The upstairs dining room is reached only by a narrow iron spiral stairway. At the top, the threadbare room is hardly disguised by its fish-netting. Service could also use some work. At one table, main dishes were served before the diners had finished their appetizers; at another, three dinners were served long before the fourth. With downstown prices ($8 to $11.50 for main courses, diners readily running over $20), one could rightly expect considerably more finesse. The menu is brief, consisting largely of steaks and chops and few seafood dishes, which the waiter told us were made from frozen seafood. The crab imperial was nicely - i.e., simply - prepared, but the $10 it should have been extraordinary. The same might be said of the lamp chops, which cost $10.50. One does get, in addition, potatoes baked in foil and some negligible string beans. One could easily neglect the desserts - cheesecake or parfait. One had better check carefully the vintage on one's wine, for they are seldom as advertised. Or one could go just for the drink and the view and not bother with all the rest.

Normandy Farms

10710 Falls Road,

Potomac [11]

652-9421, 299-5028

Open dialy, noon to midnight. Lunch noon-4 p.m., dinner 4-11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations for six or more.

A very young man with whom I am acquainted characterized Normandy Farm thus, "It is the kind of restaurant I hate. You have to get all dressed up and they put a lot of fancy things on the menu and high prices so you'll think it's good and the food is terrible." I don't think he overstated the case, except that he forgot to mention that the popovers are a wonder, by far the best thing about Normandy Farm. The rooms are quite handsome, more impressive than the exterior suggests. The walk-in fireplaces are hung with gargantuan copper pots and the walls are decorated with scenes and maps of Normandy, reinforced by the waitresses' beribboned peaked white caps. I don't even want to bother with all the sad details of our dinners. The packaged-tasting soups, the overdone beef, the fat soggy duck in lumpy marmalade, the crumbly seafood, the Day-Glo chartreuse lemon chiffon pie, the ultimate insult of frozen melon season. The waitress brought us chablis instead of Pouilly Fuisse, explaining, "That's what we give instead of Pouilly Fuisse." Those dinners cost $5 to $10.50 fixed price, $7.75 to $12.50 for a la carte main dishes. If only man could live by popovers alone.

Country Peddler Inn

19964 Fisher Ave.,

Pooleville [12]

301/428-8800

Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to midnight from 10 a.m. weekends. MC, AE, BA. Reservations.

The wood is stacked up outside this graceful Federal-style townhouse to keep the six fireplaces going all winter. Built in 1835, the house is decorted inside as early Williamsburg, which was all the rage in the mid-nineteenth century (as, indeed, it is now). The tavern room, however, is dominated by a wondrous Art Deco bar. Upstairs is the main dining room, with tavern-blue woodwork and brass chandeliers, highly polished wood floors accented with an Oriental rug. The tables look old and dark, the chairs hand-carved primitives. Thus, in one of the prettiest towns around is one of the prettiest inns around. The service is casual, but the one of the prettiest inns aorund. The service is casual, but the cooking obviously professional. A mishmash of country and city-style food, the Country Peddler has main dishes from $3.75 (bluefish or spaghetti) to $8.45 (filet mignon), with occasional flights into beef Wellington ($12). For $1.20 more, appetizer and dessert are added, but we found them not worth the bother. The best parts of our meals were what came along automatically - the deliciously light, puffy fried dough; the cornbread; the zucchini and tomatoes accentee with oregano; salad with garden-fresh tomatoes and cucumbers and a choice of very good dressings. The main courses they accompanied were less consistent, from superb, garlicky fried chicken and veal nicely presented either sauteed with mushrooms and marsala or stewed with onions and mushrooms in a cream sauce, to shrimp tempura that were greasy and tough. A surprisingly good special was Chinese-style spareribs.So what we learned was we couldn't predict how good our dish might be but the odds were on our side, the price was worth the risk and there were enough good side dishes to drown our disappointments.

Meadowlark Inn

19611 Fisher Ave.,

Poolesville [13]

301/428-8937

Open Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m., Saturday, 11:30 to 2:30 and 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday, noon to 9 p.m. No credit cards. Reservations accepted.

I don't know if they hired the baby rabbit to greet us in the parking lot, but it did let us know that we were in the country. Inside, too, the greeting was appropriate, warm and welcoming from waitresses in long colonial dresses. This certainly does feel like a farmhouse, with its flowered wallpaper and red hurricane lamps, the tall hutches filled with red hobnail glass and old crockery. As in most of the area's country inns, the menu is fixed-price, with appetizer and dessert included and the standard scoop of cheddar spread with crackers and the standard relish tray. The menu runs to roasts (turkey, lamb, beef), crab imperial, fried shrimp and ham, with a couple of Italian and barbecued dishes. The bread is sweet and homemade, the vegetables canned or tired or both. There is a sweet touch to everything, from the salad dressing to the barbecued chicken to the canned pineapple which serves as a bed for the crab imperial. In all, the prices were reasonable ($7 to $10 for full dinners), the food adequate, the service pleasant, the setting relaxing.

Olney Inn

17801 Georgia Ave., Olney [14]

924-2121

Open daily noon to 9 p.m. All major or credit cards. Reservations requested.

The Olney Inn menu describes its waiters and waitresses as "Trained in the art of table placement and quiet service, chosen for their poise and initiative, they are the finest in service." Our waiter, a shy young man who knew little about the food and less about how to serve it, generally left us alone, perhaps to limit the number of blunders he visited on us. Along the way, he forget severalof the side dishes the menu apromised, but by then we realized we weren't missing much. The Olney Inn would be a delightful place if dining were not its raison d'etre. this is the most elegant looking of the inns, with polished woods and Oriental silk walls, with crystal sconces and beautifully molded plasterwork. But why the plastic carnations? In the Chippendale Room is a salad bar filled with cantaloupe, ice-berg lettuce and on to chowmein noodles. The vegetables tasted canned or frozen or both; the bearnaise sauce on the roast beef tasted like cornstarched chicken broth. On a fixed-price dinner at $9.95 you could choose from smothered chicken, which means smothered in gloppy flour gravy, or frozen flounder, or roast lamb strongly flavored but cooked to a nicely pink stage. Crab imperial ($10.50 a la carte) was the best of our dishes, which meant it was fairly good. We didn't have any better luck with desserts and by the end of the meal we felt that if we had called it quite after the mint julep, we would have been ahead of the game. King's Contrivance U.S. 32, Columbia [15] 301/995-0500

Open 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday throug Saturday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. MC. Reservations.

You really feelas if you are somewhere as you drive up thveway to the imposing, white columned King's Contrivance. Inside, the fabrics and the wallpapers are luscious; the decorating was done with a well-tutored eye. The service, however, could use some tutoring, at least enough to translate the French menu into English and to serve without clunking the plates on the table. While the glass-walled porch could hardly be a lovelier place to eat, the rooms upstairs are quieter, with more space between the tables. The wine list is beautifully laid out and filled in with interesting choices from under $10 to over $100. The King's Contrivance served some of the best and some of the worst food I found this summer. Never before have I found snails shriveled and overcooked and the sauces were unconscionably floury.

The tendency to overthicken ran through the stuffed clams, the lobster bisque, the fish with sorrel sauce. Yet, among the appetizers was a refined pate (which could have done better without a crust) and and excellent remoulade on big, juicy shrimps. A shellfish caserole was garlicky and buttery to the point of abnadon, and a steak seasoned with green peppercorns and vinegars could have been better trimmed but not better cooked. Desserts are the highlight, the berry tarts still crisp, the trifle creamy and sherry-drenched, the rum cake constructed of many thin layers interspersed with chocolate cream. Main dishes are $7 to $9.60, and a full meal will finish over $15 a person. Rene's Papillon 8880 Frederick Rd., Ellicott City [15] 301/465-4207

Open Tuesday through Friday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday buffet, noon to 6 p.m., closed Monday. CB,AE, BA, Reservations.

Some restaurants just can't help leading with their chins. And so Papillions's menu enclosed a letter which began, "Hill I am Chef Rene." It went on to tell how he has cooked for kings, queens, celebrities and "good unknown peoples" and that his cooking methods are different, not using chemicals or colorings or preservatives. With that challenge established, he went on to serve a bland pate with bread, the water explaining that bread would take twenty-five minutes to defrost. His cream sauces were thick and heavy, his duck and lobster tough and chewy, his veal disintegrating. The patato du jour was pasty conquettes, but the vegetable du jour was nonexistent. (When wer asked, the waiter replied that we could get some frozen peas if we wanted(. There were two highlights: the herbed salad dressing, a kind of homeade mayonnaise, the waiter explained, that was made from the eggs laid on the premises; and an ice cream cake fashioned from an airy sponge cake and delicate custard sauce. Since the fixed menu costs $12 and a la carte main dishes $8 to $9.75, dinner with wine can climb over $20. The service and the food made much of a few small details (garlicky homemade melba toast, for instance) while leaving major flaws gasping for attention. Yes, it is a lovely building, crisply decorated in brown and white, offering a dining terrace under tall fir trees in good weather. But next time I would stick to the adjacent pub, set in the old salve quarters of the estate, where a sandwich or some cheese would cost under $3 and I could hear live music under the stars.

Comus Inn

23900 Old Hundred Rd.,

Comus (17)

301/349-5100

Open Monday through Thrusday noon-9 p.m., Friday through Saturday noon-11 p.m., Sunday noon-9 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations.

George Washington visited Comus, but certainly not to eat. The Inn was built later, in 1860, and grew like Topsy until 1900, but from the outside it is still a pretty white house wiht lime green shutters and hanging petunias and a wonderful view of Sugarloaf Mountain. Inside, they have somehow managed to transform it into a replica of a college dining hall, particularly the downstairs room where the band plays the cha-chas. Waitresses wear semi-wench costumes and act confused. The food fits the setting; dining hall food, at least once you get past the rather good-soup. The salad bar has an unimaginative array of cole slaw, patato salad (the best of the bunch), green salad, canned applesauce, apple butter, cottage cheese, corn relish, three-bean salad and such.The main dishes, too, are standard choices fried chicken (bland), crab imperial (oversalted, but light and creamy, the best bet), reliably cooked steaks and prime rib, ham, duck, fried shrimp and seafood. None of the ones we tried were bad, the string beans tasted canned, the French fries were frozen and there were canned peaches at the height of peach season. With appetizer and the salad buffet, diners run $5.50 to $9.25; desserts add another fifty cents or $1. There isn't much of a wine list, but a cafe costs only $3. The prices are not all that high - but neither is the quality.

Peter Pann Inn

U.A. 335, Urbana (18)

301/874-2222.

Open daily noon to 9 p.m. No credit cards. No reservations.

The Peter Pan Inn is now fifty years old, but that's not what's wrong with it. it is nearly doubling its size, but that's not what's wrong with it. It is now part of a chain, and that may be what's wrong with it, but I'm not sure. After all, it has always looked like a parking lot with an Italian Renaissance attic attached. It has always required that you pay for your meal before you eat it. But was fried chiken always so greasy and exhausted, the steak always so tasteless, the appetizer and dessert selection always so dismal? The enormous dining rooms and lawn with their santuary and fountains and sewing machines tables are corny in an endearing sort of way. And the sugary corn fritters are as good as ever. But there are few other drawing cards. The special drinks taste like nail polish and cost $3. The dinners (fried chicken, fish or shrimp, Smithfield ham, T-bone chopped steak, or vegetable plate) are mostly $4 to $6, which sounds like a good but. But dinner means a choice of tomato or apple juice; a dry, bland muffin; the usual relish tray of cottage cheese, apple butter, cabbage relish good slaw; pleasant sauteed patatoes and a couple of indifferent vegetables plus the corn fritters; and ice cream with or without insipid sundae sauces. The finale of these "county dinners" is coffee with non-dairy creamer. Oh, well, the service is rapid enough that uyou don't have to hang around too long and kindly enough that when you realize your meal cost you less than $6, you don't feel that the loss was great.

Gabriel's French Provincial Inn

Ijamsville (19)

301/865-5500.

Open Monday through Saturday, noon to 2 p.m. and Sunday 3 to 9.30 p.m. Closed Wednesday. BA, MC. Reservations.

In 1862, when Gabriel's was built, according to the menu, evenings were punctuated by blasts from the mines and the rumbling of frieght trains. The mines are gone, but the trains still liven the evening, which otherwise would be rather dull. Our dinner took three and a half hours, though there were only two tables occupied. Outside, the scene is an everyday, sort of farm, with white slatted chairs on the lawn and ducks around a pond. Inside, the vast main dining room is centered with a big well covered with plywood. A couple of pictures hang crooked on the walls. If you do happen to find yourself at Gabriel's, order the trout. It comes from a nearby trout farm and is stuffed with mushrooms, topped with a lovely deep russet sauce. Beef Wellington would be a good choice, if you don't mind pushing aside the raw pastry covering. And with these dishes you might get a heady ratatouille and some very good Italian green beans. But you will have to put up with a pedestrian hors d'oeuvre tray, a soup which, in our case, was a gazpacho that tasted more of salt and pepper than anything else and maybe the mealiest, toughest corn that ever grew on a cob.The meal goes on to an iceberg lettuce and tomato salad, a choice of four cheeses as pedestrian as the hors d'oeuvres and a parfait fo heavily laced withbooze that you might be willing to forgive and forget what else you ate. You could also choose other seafoods, coq au vin. Cornish hen, rack of lamb, sweetbreads, or over-aged veal among the fixed price meals for about $9. Although those prices have hardly changed in the last four years, a la carte prices climb more steeply, including two-person dessert souffles for $15. These is an adequate wine list with modest prices, and a note-saying they sell wine by the case, which makes you wonder how slow the service is one a crowded evening.

Ye Olde Cozy Restaurant

105 Fredrick Rd.,

Thurmont (20)

301/271-7373.

Open Monday 5 to 9 p.m. through Sunday, 11.30 a.m. to 9 p.m. BA, MC. Reservations.

Any restaurant this outrageous and this crowded on a weekday night just has to be good. The Cozy leaves no plastic unturned in its effort to titillate the public. A stone and shingle motel and restaurant with a tiny bridge and a wishing well, the Cozy announces at its front door a list of its famous visitors (Winston Churchhill, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Miss National Teenager). Inside is a morassof saloon signs and carrousel horses, barber chairs and, in season, acres of Christmas or Thangsgiving ir Palm Sunday decorations. Each month is a theme, from Oktoberfest to Western Round-up. In the middle of the 350-seat dining room is a buffet piled with enough food for the entire county. The menu is page after page of rules of the house ("plate charge when groaning board is available $1.50; child in high chair with groaning board not avaiable. No Charge"). Worried? Relax. Under all that midway atmosphere is some absolutely terrific food. It is good enough to be worth the trip any time, but it would be foolish to miss the groaning board, which is served Monday though Friday from 5 p.m. The first table is breads, huge soft loaves of country white and cinnamon, crustier French and pumper-nickel. Then the soups, a choice of two, both rather good. The salad bar of dozens of items: marinated fresh vegetables, tossed salad with really good dressing, excellent pickled watermelon, rind truly ripe tomatoes, two cole slaws, patato salas, relishes, fish salad. But you haven't even hit the highlights by then - the turkey grown just down the road, the seafoods moist and delicate. There is fried chicken, ham, and steak, in addition to a long list of monthly specials, ans with thme come fresh vegetables. Ah, then desserts, over twenty of them. Chocolate pie, apple pie, lemon meringue pie and a crunch of coconut pie worth eating to the point of collapsing. Banana cake, chocolate cake, spice cake, and strawberry shortcake as good as in American myth. Irresistible doughnuts. And then a do-it-yourself sundae bar with fruits and sauces and nuts and marshmallow fluff. The fried chicked or turkey dinners - including weekday graoning boards - cost a benevolent $4.45, the steaks and seafoods and average of $8. It is homey food; it is real food; it is the food which sends us seeking country inns in the first place.

Old South Mountain Inn.

Alternate U.S. 40,

Boonesboro,(21)

301/432-6155.

Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday noon to 9 p.m. AE, BA. MC. Reservations.

For the nearly 250 years, the Old South Mountain Inn has been intimately connected with such historic figures as Henry Clay ans John Brown, And, with the parking lot jammed full be 8 p.m. on a Friday evening, I assume it is intimately connected with the social life of Frederick County. But if that Friday night was typical, I wouldn't be likely to develop an intimate relationship with the restaurant. It is impressively situated on a mountainside, across the road from Washington Monument State Park. Outside, a covered pavilion was set for dining. Inside the effect was Victorian-German-pub, if you can imagine that. DInner started with a scoop of cheddar spread and a waiter who turned sullen when we asked too many questions. An hour later he delivered our appetizer, having reported that the kitchen was out of the mot of the things we wanted, as was the wine list. Things looked better after a buterry, melting fried cheese, which he found among the appitizers despite its not being on the menu. BY the time our main dishes arrived, the kitchen was out of corn on the cob, but substituted zucchini and peppers which served just as well. With main dishes $5.75 and up, the $9.50 prime rib was the second most expensive main course. Luckily, it was excellent and large, because the other dishes were distinctly unpleasant: the chicken Kiev like buttered Styrofoam, the tiny breaded stuffed shrimp powerfully fishy, the fried chicken greasy and the fried chicken greasy and worn out. On we went to gluey pies and cobblers, to burned coffee, and to notice that nearly everybody else was sticking to the prime rib. For the more than $15 a person, we could have had that at home and had enough change to spare for a movie.

WEST VIRGINIA

Bavarian Inn

U.S. 48 & 34.

Shepherdstown (22)

304/876-6783

Open Tuesday through Friday, 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m., Sunday, noon to 9 p.m. AE,CB, BA. Reservations recommended. Jackets required.

The oldest town in West Virginia, Shepherdstown has one of the prettiest main streets and two of the best restaurants in that state. The Bavariam Inn, under new management since last spring, sits on a grassy hill over the Potomac. The flagstone terrace may be set with blue checked tablecloths and inside are two small rooms looking as fresh as spring with blue cloths and blue window-pattern draperies, a refreshing contrast to the sturdy stone exterior. Waitresses act as if serving you is the highlight of their day. The menu is German and main courses range from $4.50 to $8.25. Although the wime list is unexciting, a carafe of house wine costs a mere $3.50. Concentrate on appetizers at the Bavarian, for the robust liver pate is exceptional and the snails are served in brown butter sauce which has a delightful tang. The chicken soup is rich and bratwurst, a think wienerschnitzel nicely breaded, and sacerbrated heady with allspice. There are steaks, Virginia and Westphalian ham and a couple of seafood dishes. But the most memorable parts of the main dishes are their accompaniments: clove-scented mild red cabbage; dense dumplings falvored with nut-meg; fresh green beans smoky from bacon; faintly sweet buttered carrots. For desert, they make apple strudel and kirsch torte of merit if not great talent. The pumpernickel and rye breads are warm and crusty. It is a homestyle dinner, generously portioned and served graciously.

Yellow Brick Bank

Princess and German Streets,

Shepherdstwon (23)

304/876-2208

Open for dinner daily 6 to 9 p.m., lunch Friday through SUnday noon to 3 p.m. BA. Reservation.

THe Yellow Brick Bank isn't yellow, but it is everything else I expected it to be. This sunny cafe on one of the Shepherdstown's prettiest streets actually started as a bank, as you can see fron the mirror-bright open vault. But a stunning marble and tile bar has been installed, and the Art Deco teller's windows have been converted to booths. Tables are set with brightly colored napkins folded like flowers, and real flowers are set in Perrier bottles. The menu on a blackboard entices with cold and hot soups (ninety-five cents), pate (1.75), substantial salafs (2.25 to $3.75), sandwiches ($1.85 to $2.25) ans about a half-dozen daily specials (about $4 to $6) plus several special desserts (average $1). Everything is made fresh there. A grilled chicken breast was moist and fragnant, a tout deliciously stuffed with shrimp-shudded fish mousse, the London broil spicy, though a little overdone. A cold meat platter was impressively garnished with fruit and rice salad, and accompanied by a refreshing Cumberland sauce. The crepes, the pates, the salads were all lively. With all that came crusty, chewy sourdough French bread and considerable character and wonderful fresh vegetables. Desserts - lime chesspie, apple tart, Haagen Dazs ice cream and such - were of similar quality, the apple tart worth the wait for it to come out of the oven. It sounds grand, doesn't it? And it is. From the parsley to the hanging plants, everything is full of life. Yet there are obvious flaws. The kitchen is slow, the staff too meager. Too many dishes listed on the menu are not available. Fo there ready to indulge a little amateurisn. If you have to linger over a drink, at least here the screwdrivers are made with freshly squeezed orange juice.