Dining and theatergoing usually fit into an evening as well as most men fit into their old army uniforms. And the bulges are likely to obliterate the opening curtain.

Particularly when the theater has a 7:30 or 8 p.m. curtain on a week night, the most sensible plan is to eat a light meal near the theater and fill your crevices if necessary afterwards.While there are many restaurants near Washington's theaters, they are primarily notable for their lack of distinction.Thus, I have sought restaurants where good sandwiches, salads and casual - meaning rapid - meals are available, close to the major theatres but not necessarily within walking distance. At each of them a light meal (and sometimes a heavy meal) costs less than $20, allowing leeway for a sundae in Georgetown afterward.

Open Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Friday and saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. MC, V. No reservations except for five or more. Prices: Soups, sandwiches and salads average $3 to $4.

I have given up, for the time being, on the Arena Stage neighborhood. If any of the restaurants presents food worthy of its waterfront setting, I have yet to find it. In the meantime, Capitol Hill is close enough for a pre-theater supper, and serves the Folger goers as well.

Newest star in the Capitol Hill fireworks is the second branch of the American Cafe, and its neon star in the window appropriately identifies it. This American Cafe includes a market, so maybe the dining compromise for Arena patrons is an impromptu picnic from the American Cafe to be eaten on the waterfront.

In the past year or two the American Cafe has refined its act. Its soups now start with fresh stocks, and compete with any in town, whether spinach or vichysoisse. Its sandwiches are large and pretty, some of them such as the rare roast beaf or pate or fresh turkey being outstanding. Others are good but need small adjustments: more corned beef and less violent heating for the reuben, fresher rolls and more meat for the Italian sub, which at least has excellent meats and seasonings. In general, the sandwiches are American classics -- club, hot turkey with gravy, chili dog, barbecue -- done with care and sometimes an innovative touch. The barbecue, which is wonderfully smoky, is probably unique in being served on a croissant. But it works.

The American Cafe boasts of its croissants. And well it should. It can also boast of its spicy, tomatoey chili and its fragrant meat and vegetable salads (don't miss the tarragon chicken, the sesame noodles and the eggplant salad, which is one of the town's best versions of caponata). Sometimes the salads could use more restraint with herbs, and the coleslaw is unexpectedly bland, but they are certainly above the ordinary. Among hot entrees, some still taste like experiments; lamb stew with ginger, for instance, had been reheated to a mush, and its vegetable-flecked rice ring tasted much less interesting than it looked. But one experiment has continually shown spectacular results. The daily main dish pie -- some days sausage, some days ham with vegetable -- is an inspired blend of meats, vegetables and cheese in the lightest, butteriest, flakiest, best-decorated puff pastry seen outside (or even usually inside) a French restaurant.

For theatergoers the American Cafe shows a dangerous tendency to lag in its service. It is not that the waiters lack energy, but that they are working very hard to please too many people. They seem to be doing a dozen things at once, and too often your dinner is No. 13.

So you may have to skip dessert, which is too bad. You could, however, take along a piece of pecan pie (rich and buttery and usually served too cold anyway) or imported-from-Brooklyn cheesecake that is rich and heavy enough to survive the journey well. Brownies are chewy and moist. Carrot cake is like ultranutritious spice cake. The grandiose desserts are sundaes and crepes with Haagen-Dazs ice cream and superior whipped cream and fresh fruits and rivers of thick fudge.

This cafe does have a liquor license, and uses it for a delicious (partly because it is not too sweet) pina colada, for a bloody mary that needs to reverse the proportions of tomato juice and hot pepper, and for a nice little wine list (although two reviews of the special Franciscan Vineyard chardonnay found it both times a dud).

The new American Cafe is more spacious than the first, and its shine of metal ceiling and mirrored walls is better softened by the neutral fabrics and wood. It is a gentler setting, more relaxing yet still looking like a high-budget stage set. Although it makes me feel like part of the chorus in an urban musical, I enjoy the part. I only wish somebody would raise the white lamps that hang over the tables so they neither echo nor interrupt one's line of vision.

But that is nitpicking. The American Cafe does more than a sandwich shop is ordinarily expected to do. And if it is meant to be a reflection of today's America, we can like what we see of ourselves.