Sheraton-Carlton, 16th and K Streets NW. 638-2626. $10.50 with champagne and valet parking.

THE fastest growing eating mode these days, if phone calls and waiting lines are fair indicators, is Sunday brunch. So for the next two weeks this column will lead you through what was a three-month tour of the intown hotels' Sunday brunches. After a proper period of recovery, I'll look into the non-hotel brunches.

Sunday brunches and hotels are natural companions, for there is no better way to cater to the lassitude of vacation than over eggs and champagne at noon. It is, of course, all the more delicious to eat Sunday brunch at a hotel where you are spending the entire weekend. But if brunch is all you can manage as a getaway, so be it.

This week we examine the grand buffets, next week the table service versions and a roundup of lesser buffets. As you read, be warned that Sunday brunch is an invention of the devil, preparing you for nothing but an afternoon of recovering from its excess and an evening of recovering from recovering.

If I have only one morning after to live through, let me live it at the Sheraton-Carlton -- with the understanding that all I want to eat is fresh fruit and champagne. In the summer I will live it on the terrace, watching the 16th Street foot traffic through the curlicued iron gates. In the winter I will sip freshly squeezed orange juice -- mixing my champagne with it to disguise the wine's defects -- in the lime green cavern, feeling like one of the fragile crystals in the chandeliers. Black-tied waiters refill my wine. Miniskirted waitresses forget my coffee. All to the tune of piano music, while I march back and forth to the buffet, sometimes just to examine the ice sculpture and the apples carved as swans. Forget the biting, oily smoked salmon and the gluey creamed chicken, the brittle blintzes and sodden roast beef hash. The cold salads include potato and herring and chick peas with olives. The green beans and chicken reflect care, and two tables are dough-laden -- one with croissants and bagels and coffee cakes, another with flossy cakes and tortes (very few of them worthy of their decorations). Concentrate on omelets made to order in the corner, flipped with a practiced twist. And rejoice over the fruits, tray after tray, carved basket after carved basket of everything the greengrocer could possibly get at this time of year. Forgive them their starch and glop, for the culinary artist and the produceman perform with glory.