elan

2020 K St. NW. 466-5840

Open Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch, and 4 to 8 p.m. for cocktails. Membership fee after 8 p.m., $10. All major credit cards. No reservations.

Prices: Lunch buffet $4.95 for cold table, $6.95 for cold and hot table.

WASHINGTON is a lunching city. Restaurants that ache with emptiness at dinner are full for lunch. Restaurants that are full for dinner groan and threaten to burst their walls at lunch. In some cities, lunch is a second-rate restaurant meal, with underlings cooking it; but rarely is that the case here. In fact, downtown Washington has many restaurants that are only open for lunch. Today we look at two of them that are open to the public only for lunch, as well as for that other Washington restaurant tradition, "happy hour." Elan turns into a private club in the evening (through the public can buy a one-evening membership for $10); and My Brother and Me, at least for the time being, closes its kitchen at 7:30, through the stereo stays fired up until 9. But despite their common lunchtime predominance and their both being on K Street, these are two very different sorts of downtown restaurants.

My Brother and Me is a sandwich shop -- plus. It is a basement -- plus. It is a bar -- plus. It is a lot better than its surface qualities would lead you to expect.

Elan is a gilded Tesas import, lavishly decorated and positioned in a prime location identified by a blue canopy. Lunch is a buffet stretching across two sides of the room. To enter elan is to feel as if you are being ushered into a designer salon for food. Elan is notably worse than its surface qualities would lead you to expect.

Elan was expected to be a place of action when it opened as a posh, soon-to-be-private club.Action? Well, who knows? But siltting on one of its tall stools, perched in the library (stocked with year's worth of Reader's Digest Condensed Books) or against a backgrouind of gallery-quality pottery, you wait for someone to call, "Lights! Camera!" You pose, partly because those double-height chairs feel so precarious, but also because such a precisely cluttered setting seems like a stage or screen.

Elan is filled with bealutiful things, wilth deep, rich, hand-woven fabrics of sun-strong colors. It seems as if every wood is inlaid, every pot hand-thrown, every vase high priced -- probably with the tag still on the bottom.

The restaurant is often filled, as well, with beautiful people, the slender sort who psobably never make it past the celery stilcks, on the buffet. Presumably you are here to eat. I say presumably because: 1) It is sometimes hard to find a waitress who can provide you with silverware; and 2) much of the food is geared for display more than for degustation.

On one side of the room is an extensilve stretch of edibles known as the cold buffet (though it includes soup); your fill of it costs $4.95. On the other side of the room is the hot buffet, access to which costs $6.95, allowing you to sample hot and cold arrays. The cold buffet is a good value only if you are particularly fond of fruit, or tend not to notice what you are eating. To start with the soup, it tastes direct-from-the-can. It is followed by a series of salads -- tossed, bean, kjello, rice, and the like -- that awe you with the lack of flavor that is packed in all those bright colors. The predominating seasoning theme is sugar. A protein boost is added with sliced boiled ham and American cheese, and for dessert there is a fluff that seems to very from day to day in its color, from pale brown to pale yellow, but tastes like a kissing cousin to marshmallow fluff. There is, however, fruit, from melon balls to whole apples and bananas. Nothing has been done to it. Thank goodness.

The hot buffet is more filling. If you are partickularly fond of spiced shrimp, it is a good value, for they are mild and plump and kperfectly good food. There are also some totally acceptabel cubes of cheese, though they are not nearly as tempting as the pyramid of uncut cheeses that serve as their background. Then come the steam table creations, among them some unexpectedly creative and tasty vegetables (sweet potato puree, ratatouille, brussels sprouts, potatoes au gratin). There might be plain old fashioned corn custard pie, or herbed baked chicken over gluey rice, and usually there is fish floating in a milky sea. The secret of this buffet is that the first food you encounter is the best, and its culmination -- actually, its nadir -- is a dry, overcooked roast beef carved to order. The finale is the likes of packaged tart shells filled with sweet library paste. Beverages are extra.

Elan's menu describes this as "the experience of a lunch-time... an unending array of lunchtime favorites." Maybe elan should be renamed chutzpah.