Key: Prices are for the least and most expensive main dishes at lunch (L) and dinner (D), as reported by restsurants. Initials are of credit cards accepted. It has been about 500 restaurant visits since my last comprehensive dining guide, the third since I started reviewing restaurants for this magazine. Each year I have introduced the guide with what's better and what's worse, what is happening and what is not happening in Washington's restaurants. And each year it seems that with all the changes, things stay the same. This year some of Washington's dining wishes have at last been fulfilled. We now have a Creole restaurant -- 219. We have a good new restaurant near the Kennedy Center -- Foggy Botton Cafe -- and a lot of activity aimed at upgrading the dining in the Kennedy Center and Watergate restaurants. The Maryland suburbs have welcomed some badly needed restaurants, La Miche and Jerry's Seafood. Finally we have a West African restaurant -- Baobab (to be reviewed soon) -- as well as two new Ethiopian restaurants (Blue Nile and Axum joining Mamma Desta and the partly-Ethiopian Peasant's Basket). Fine Persian food is now avaiable at Omar Khayyam, just down the street form the area's first Scottish restaurant, Scotland Yard. New ideas are revitalizing traditional restaurants. The American Cafe's new branch on Capitol Hill has added a market to complement its dining room. 219 serves different needs in different spaces, with a lowpriced downstairs bar serving red beans and rice and gumbos while the upstairs caters to more expensive tastes. Cafe de Artistas in Georgetown (soon to be reviewed) combines an art gallery with a restaurant, and Kramerbooks has added two more boo kstore cafes to its list. The nicest surprises for a restaurant critic are restaurants that improve substantially. And this year Le Pavillon was pulled from a dismal swamp by an immensely talented new chef who turned it into one of the city's very best restuarants. Da Vinci, Chez Camille, Cafe de Paris are among restaurants that deserve new interest from diners who were previously disappointed with their performance. But is all this recitation really a change? Is there overall progress? We are justified in remaining skeptics until the day Washington can produce a great corned-beef sandwich. American Cafe 1211 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 337-3600. 227 Massachusetts Ave. NE. 547-8500. L,D $2.50-$5.95. Open daily. MC, V. In the past year, the American Cafe has branched out from Georgetown to Capitol Hill with a central commissary to supply them both. Along the way it has refined its act. Its soups now start with fresh stocks and compete with any in town. Its sandwiches are large and pretty; some of them, such as rare roast beef or pate or fresh turkey, are outstanding. sIn general the sandwiches are American classics -- club, hot turkey with gravy, chili dog, barbecue -- done with care and innovative touches. Beyond sandwiches there are a few dinner dishes -- experiments that don't always take -- plus a superb meat pie with varied fillings from day to day, and unusually good salads from tarragon chicken to eggplant to sesame noodles. Drinks -- standard bar stuff or ice creamy, boozy milkshakes -- are often especially good. And dessert gets a lot of attention, from the pecan pie to the imported-from-the-Bronx cheesecake to real, authentically buttery brownies to crepes and sundaes with scoope of Haagen-Dazs ice cream and dollops of real whipped cream. The settings are glitter and neon and blond wood; the service tries hard to cope gracefully with the crowds. The American Cafes do more than sandwich shops are ordinarily expected to do. And if they are meant to be a reflection to today's America, we can like what we see of ourselves. Apana 3066 M St. NW. 965-3040. D $6.75-$13.50. D only. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. When looking for a restaurant of romance, of elegance, of creative and talented cooking, a restaurant for a special occasion, Washingtonians tend to think French. And what a pity it is, for they should consider Apana, an Indian restaurant. It is beautiful, its high banquettes allowing more privacy, its large tables more space, its dim lights and quiet service more serenity and intimacy than nearly any other restaurant in town. Its most obvious flaw is that its silver menus are difficult to read in the dark, but that's a small fault. The food is seasoned with moderation -- unlike the daring curries one usually expects; there is no tongue-searing unless you request it, but the spicing tantalizes with its complexity. The contrasts of textures, colors and flavors are frequently surprising. Trout or red snapper are bathed in intensely buttery sauce perfumed with -- well, cardamom, at least -- and highlighted by the crunch of broccoli and almonds. Lamb curry with spinach retains the fresh bit of barely cooked greens. Shrimp with coconut reinforces both those subtle tastes. A few dished are dull -- heavily battered bhujas and dry tandoori chicken. But the chutneys of sour-spicty tamarind, grassy mint with black onion seed and pomegranate, or mango will vitalize any dish. Yogurt-based raitas will cool any curry. Don't neglect the breads; the puffed puri is as large and puffed as a sofa pillow, the paratha pocketed with the surprise of spinach and ginger or potatoe. Astor 1913 M St. Nw. 331-7994. L, $1.95-$5.95, D $1.95-$8.95. Open daily. AE, D, V, MC. For many years the Astor has introduced struggling students and budget-strapped families to exotic Middle Eastern food (with plain American fare for the timid). And if the squid is mealy and the cheese pie dull, they can afford, for $2 or $3, to try another day a different adventure on the menu. The win list, with a wide variety of wines by the glass for 95 cents, also encourages experimentation. For an appetizer, try the tart tarama salad or the chicken livers sauteed with lemon and oregano. Soups are also satisfying. For main dishes, the baked eggplant layered with onions and tomato is one of the city's best meatless dishes, and the stuffed vegetables are the best of the daily specials. Belly dancing and higher prices are featured in the rear second-floor dining room; otherwise, the Astor is one of Washinton's longest-running restaurant bargains. Au Pied de Cochon 1335 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 333-5440. L, D $2.95-$5.95. Open daily. No credit cards. Au Pied de Cochon at its most crowded is probably at its most fun. Even the line at the door enjoys it, for this is a watering hole as much as an eating place. Tables are inches apart, and plates have been known to pass from one to the other to help newcomers make their choices. The waiters rush you -- no wonder -- and can be abrupt. They also can be witty and amusing. The food gives you a lot of calories for your money; dishes tend to be heavy and robust, served in large portions. Sauces are weighty. But it serves well as bistro food. Best buy, when it is available (also the best buy at the sibling restaurant next door, Aux Fruits de Mer) is lobster. The cold pigs' feet are marvelous, if you like pigs' feet. You can order a range from omelets, quiches and crepes to London broil (rare, crusty and an enormous portion, though the sauce has its rough edges). And if you ask about the house wine, the waiter is likely to say something like, "I've had worse." In sum, the surroundings and the food are engaging and down-to-earth, as well as a good value. Bacchus 1827 Jefferson Place. NW. 785-0734. L $3.50-$6.95, D $6.50-$7.95. L daily ex Sat., D daily, closed Sun. AE, MC, V. The name is Greek, the restaurant is Lebanese (at least at dinner; at lunch it is another matter altogether and not nearly as interesting), and the food is exciting. Bacchus is tiny, with tile tables close enough to make it hard to resist sampling your neighbor's meal. It is an attractive restaurant, with service that is efficient but not effusive. The wine list is small, its prices too low to last. As nice as all that is, though, the cooking is the focal point here. A meal at Bacchus should emphasize appetizers; in fact, many diners make a meal of appetizers, drawing up the next table for the overflow of plates. Hummos special is a highly decorative and delicious combination of hummos with chopped meat and pine nuts. Kibbeh here is fried, boldly spiced. Tahini salad is tangy with lemon, smoothed with sesame paste. Baba ghnnouj is heavily garlicked. all of them are wonderful, except the stuffed vine leaves have tended to be dull. If homemade sausages are available, by all means try them. Main dishes are kebabs and meats molded with spiced rice seasoned with almonds, pine nuts and currants. Kebabs are marinated in a sumptuous mix of spices, grilled to just the point of juiciness, bedded on nut-studded rice. Lamb or chicken kebab and lamb or chicken with rice should both be tasted. For dessert, the filo dough pastries are light and crisp, better than the starchy puddings with rosewater and orange glaze, though they grow on you if you give them a chance.The proper end, of course, is Turkish coffee and a game of backgammon. Bamiyan and Khyber Pass Bamiyan -- 3320 M St. NW. 338-1896. D only, $5-$8.50. Open daily. MC, V. Khyber Pass -- 2309 Calvert St. NW. 234-4632. D only, $5-$7.50. Open daily. MC, V. In case you have never tried the food of Afghanistan, Washington gives you two opportunities. Bamiyan and Khyber Pass are branches with little to distinguish one from the other except location. Bamiyan, in Georgetown, is modestly decorated with artifacts and carved into small dining rooms upstairs and down. Khyber Pass is a second-floor restaurant, also small, with artifacts on the walls and a rock garden in the window. At both, service is solicitous and tends to be slow. The most memorable dish in either (the menus are interchangeable) is aushak, homemade noodles filled with leeks or scallions and topped with yogurt, mint and a dab of tomatoe-meat sauce; the combination of flavors is luscious. A similar preparation also makes a soup, aush. The least memorable dishes are those with spinach, which is cooked to a tasteless mush. Most of the main courses are kebabs, very aromatic from their marinades, tender and grill-crisped. The chicken is sometimes stringy, so lamb and beef may be better choices. The palow, a mound of rice and lamb seasoned with coriander and the sweet touch of caramelized carrot strips and raisins, is intriguing. Add a side dish of sauteed pumpkin or eggplant with yogurt and mint. The proper ending is a platter-size, paper-thin fried pastry dusted with cardamom, chopped pistachios and sugar, and cardamom tea. The bread is home-made but lacks flavor; its texture is what's most enjoyable. Some dishes -- the long-cooked spinach and corn-starch pudding -- can be easily ignored, but the best dishes at these Afghan restaurants can be delectable. The Big Cheese 3139 M st. NW. 338-3314. L $6-$7.50, D $7- $9. Open daily. MC, V. The opening, this year, of an upstairs dining room decked with fabrics in glorious colors, and the decision to accept reservations and credit cards have marked a welcome new phase of The Big Cheese. Imagination has always been a major asset here, from the cool, quiet garden look of the first-floor dining room with its director's chairs and indoor trees, to the bimonthly menu changes that always include a page of varied dishes based on cheese and several interesting meat and seafood main dishes. The food is invariably pretty and prepared from fresh ingredients. Often it is very good, and the two variations of fried cheese have become unwavering favorites. But The Big Cheese has its good seasons, and lately it has not been in its prime. Dishes suffer from not having their seasoning corrected (or added in the first place). Quiche cursts emerge tough, fish terrine finishes with the texture of gelfilte fish and a better aftertaste. Yet spinach gnocchi have been pungent and delectable, deliciously sauced. And The Big Cheese is one of the only restaurants I encountered all summer that used fresh corn and fresh peaches. How nice to find someone someone who appreciates summer. Bish Thompson's 7935 Wisconsin Ave. Bethesda. 356-2400. L $1.95-$7.50, D $2.95-$17.75. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, CB, CC, D, MC, V. Bish Thompson's looks like an inflated version of a Mall souvenir stand, decorated as it is with flag-theme walls, Colonial lamps, portholes and fish tanks. The waitresses act as if their lives depend on finding ways to be helpful, but they are not particularly skillful. As for the food -- a long and tempting list of seafoods -- be warned not to order anything complex -- such as clam chowder. Steamed clams are fine. Plain broiled fish filets are nearly good, and fried scallops are not bad. Anything beyond that, and you are in deep water. Blue Nile 1701 16th St. NW. (In the rear of the Charleston Apts.) 232-8400. L $2.95-$4.75, D $3.50-$4.95. L daily ex Mon, D daily. AE, MC, V. Blue Nile looks like a cross between a small-town nightclub and an African museum. It sits behind the courtyard of an apartment building, a challenge to find. Its walls are attractively covered in grasscloth and decorated with shields and batiks. The place mats on the brown-checked vinyl cloths show maps of Ethiopia, and the menu illustrates the Amharic alphabet. It is dimly lighted with blue candles and yellow electric lights: atmospheric, even though the Ethiopian music has to compete with a television set at the bar. The Blue Nile keeps you off balance; the waitresses wear beautiful long robes, and the tables are set with Wet-Naps. As in other Ethiopian restaurants, the beer and wine lists, small as they are, are longer than the food list. You can order doro wote, a chicken and hard-boiled egg stew that is brick red, peppery and flavored with onions. Khey wote is a beef version. Alicha is lamb stew, mild and cooked to a near-puree. Tebse is chewy, hardly spiced beef cubes; kitfo is highly peppered chopped raw beef. The portions are small, arranged on a tray of pale, thin pancakes so that each person has portions of each in front of him, interspersed with dabs of vegetables, hot pepper paste and cottage cheese. It makes a tidy arrangement of good, simple food that is strongly spiced. The adventure is in the eating, which means tearing off bits of pancake and scooping the stews with them, eating with your hands. That's the entire meal. It grows on you. The Bread Oven 1220 19th St. NW. 466-4264. L $5.35-$6.50, D $5.75-$8.95. Closed Sunday. MC, V. From Monday morning croissants to Saturday night roast beef in wine sauce, the Bread Oven strokes French sensibilities with food that is fresh, interesting and well-prepared. The room is large and sunny, a cross between a modern cafe and a grandmotherly parlor. The menu is slim and seasonal, very reasonably priced for the quality. Choices are limited but always include a fresh fish, meat and pates. Bread, baked on the premises, is a cornerstone of the meal. Start with smooth liver mousse or country pate. Fish is a good choice here. Salads are well constructed. Pastries don't taste nearly as spectacular as they look, tending to be oversweetened and underflavored. The major flaw is service: you wait for a table, wait for your food, wait for your bill. Keep your bread basket handy. It helps to pass the time. The Broker 713 8th St. SE. 546-8300. L $4.95-$7.50, D $8.95- $15. L daily ex Sat, D daily. AE, MC, V. Whoever designed The Broker had the good taste to leave well enough alone. It is an inordinately attractive restaurant, letting the texture of old brick, a few draperies, exotic flowers, arches and skylights do it all. There is also enough space between the tables that you can both talk and hear. The satisfactions continue through the meal, thanks to knowledgeable service and some excellent dishes (among a few that could be weeded out of the menu). Start with Swiss air-dried beef, enough for two. Swiss onion soup, too, is admirable. By now you see that the chef is probably Swiss, so concentrate on those specialties such as fondue (though the addition of meats and raw vegetables to the dipping array is of questionable value) and rosti potatoes (certainly try them with bacon and cheese). Pastries are excellent here, whether as base for a vol au vent or as desserts. Foods are smartly presented in deep glass plates or plain white ones to set off the artistic arrangements. And if you hedge your bets by ordering the special cheese bread and finishing with a stunning torte or bombe, you will feel more benign about mistakes like fettucine with shrimp that tastes like what cafeterias call Spanish rice. The dining room and the pastry chef carry the restaurant. Cafe de Paris 3056 M St. NW. 965-2920. L. D $4.25-$7.50. Open daily. No credit cards. Watch the bouncing Cafe de Paris. It was a sensation when it opened, the first of the great expolsion of French cafes. The food was very good, the hours were very long, and the restaurant was very, very popular. Then came the tumble, food and service falling into disarray. Now the cafe has shifted into a new theme that has brought life to the kitchen.Fresh seafoods are displayed on ice and prepared in enticing ways. Crab cakes are simply backfin crab and parsley with the barest of bindings, broiled in butter. Add fat, fresh French fries with the skin left on and a dash of vinegar (or a dip into creamy vinaigrette), and the shore dinner takes on new meaning. Assorted seafoods are cooked in a spicy bear broth with lots of bay leaves and peppercorns, for a seafood, version of a pepperpot. Fish is broiled plain or with garlic. The menu also lists the usual quiches and sandwiches, oddities such as couscous salad (spicy and interesting) to join with a pitcher of beer or an inexpensive wine. For dessert, skip the misleadingly beautiful pastries, and discover spectacularly rich creme brulee or homestyle rough-but-nice chocolate or rum-raisin ice cream. The cafe looks unkempt or casual, depending on your point of view, but it is definitely European, always decorated with soccer memorabilia and usually decorated with some T-shirted man reading a French magazine. As for service, you might as well bring along a magazine, too. Cafe La Ruche 1039 31st St. NW. 965-26849. White Flint Mall, Rockville. 468-1155. L $3-$4.95, D $4.50-$6.50. L daily ex Sun, D daily, MC, V. While Georetown's La Ruche moves to the former site of Yes! and leaves us wondering how it will survive the relocation, its second branch, in White Flint Mall, keeps up the tradition. The White Flint branch is sprightly looking, with pale wood tables and comfortable banquettes plus "outdoor" tables in the walkway of the mall. The tables are tiny, emphasizing that this is more a cafe than a full-service restaurant, but the menu has expanded beyond that limitation. Besides the now-familiar quiches, sandwiches, eggs Florentine and cheese-sauced puff pastry, daily specials include fresh fish nicely cooked, some creditable seafood soups, and heavily herbed zucchini pie. While hot vegetables such as ratatouille, are well-prepared, the salads and cold vegetables show less care. The dining room is hectic disorganized, noisy; it is not a place to linger. The food is generally good, though not quite as good as the prices imply. But the choice of pastries, also available to carry out, is highly tempting, particularly the merinque-like walnut cake. In the White Flint fast-food barrens, Cafe La ruche is a welcome oasis of originality. Cafe Sorber 1810 K St. NW. 293-3000. L $2.45-$5.25, D $3.50-$6.50. Closed Sat, Sun. AE, MC, V. Lines of people wait to eat elbow-to-elbow at lunch, probably because you can get a decent sandwich for under $3. But otherwise the restaurant suffers from rampant blandness and food fatigue. The quiche would make the grade if it were not dried out in overheating. Cold platters taste totally unseasoned. Soups seem as if nobody ever bothered to taste them in the preparation. Best of the fare are french fries, lemonade and sherbet, but they add up to a peculiar balance. Cafe Tatti 6627 Old Dominion Dr. (McLean Mall), McLean. 790-5164. L $2.95-$5.50, D $10.50$13.50, Closed Sun. AE, D, V, MC. Nearly everything looks handmade at Cafe Tatti, by skilled hands. It is a small restaurant, fewerthan two dozen tables huddled together to make room for the bakery counter, which is spilling over with golden loaves of buttery homemade bread that will be served with your dinner. On the tables are bright cloths, some vinyl, some calico. Flowers stand in Perrier bottles. And the menu consists of a small card handwritten with the choices for the day, usually four main courses at dinner, four hot ones and one or two cold ones at lunch. The day starts in the morning with coffee and the house's own croissants. Dinner starts with soup, presented in a ceramic lettuce-leaf bow. It may not be memorable, may even be oversalted, but it rounds out the meal. Next comes salad, again not memorable but accompanied by friendly waiters in rolled-up shirt sleeves. A homestyle operation like Cafe Tatti is expected to be inconsistent, and this one is. Meat pies may be soggy, other dishes dull, or the fish may be ideal and the stew pungent. Central to a meal at Cafe Tatti is dessert, since the kitchen is continually issuing new tarts and cokes. They are good, though not as spectacular as one tends to expect from their appearance. But Cafe Tatti fixes itself in your good graces with small touches, little pleasures that add up to a restaurant tantalizing beyong the success of one particular dish or another. Cantina d'Italia 1214-A 18tyh st. NW. 659-1830. L$6.50- $10, D $11- $16. Closed Sat, Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Northern Italian restaurants come and go (and keep coming), and all the while Cantina d'Talia remains at the top. It is an uncompromising sort of restaurant, refusing to make more servings of a single dish than the kitchen finds viable, refusing to ignore the seasons and serve a stable year-round menu, refusing to open on Saturday nights. Cantina serves a variety of antipasti that sound simple and overpriced, but are so fresh and ripe that they make their point. The pastas are smooth and supple, sauced with complexities of meat essences and vegetables and seafoods; they are imaginative concoctions and often superb. Main dishes are the most variable, with the best being the cold ones -- fish with homemade mayonnaise or paper-thin marinated raw meat -- and most seafood and veal dishes. Duck and rabbit are heavy flavors and textures here, and a few veal scaloppine are overcooked, sometimes overseasoned. But when Cantina hits the mark, there is no greater distinction among Italian restaurants. Desserts are marvelous. The wine list is of considerable depth. And the series of small rooms break into cozy dining spaces, though the decor leans to excess and is considerably less fresh and natural than the food.Among the great restaurants of Washington, Cantina d'Italia has lasted longest, never wavering from maintaining a distinctive personality as well as high standards. Carlos Gardel 1759 Columbia Rd. NW. 797-8704. L $1.10-$4.25, D $1.10-$7.75. Closed tues. D, MC, NAC, V. Carlos Gardel calls itself a familiar Latin American restaurant, but don't take that too seriously, either as a place to take a family or in the English sense of the word. It is half bar -- or maybe two-third bar -- and decorated with a riot of posters, beer advertisements and hand-lettered signs telling you what is available. In the rear are a few tables. It would hardly be magnetic except for the owner-waiter, who is so hospitable as to be downright grateful you came to his restaurant (that in itself is pretty unfamiliar in Washington). Settle in with one of the many beers -- Brazil's Brahama Choop or Mexico's Dos Equis, preferably. And order appetizers: spicy empanadas, cheese-stuffed cornmeal pancakes called pupusas, and, when they have them, extraordinary tacos and burritos. Both are crisply fried, and both are meaty, heavily seasoned with chiles and cumin. The tacos have an unorthodox sort of Russian dressing, but it doesn't hurt them. Beyond that, there are pizzas and a series of Latin American main dishes that tend to be gummy or mushby or oversalted (although the french fries that come with them are indeed superior). So make a meal of the appetizers and enjoy the scene at the bar. Charda's 523 s. 23rd St. Arlington. 920-7892. D $6.95- $14. D daily, closed Sun. AE, D, MC, V. It is a surprise, this little Hungarian restaurant in the shadow of Crystal City's annonymous highrises. The Eastern European touch is carried out in small details like handwoven cloth wrapping the very good black bread. If you time your visit well, you will have the bonus of a pianist, but any time the service is warm and efficient, the food plentiful and often intriguing. Main dishes are the best on the menu. The grilled pork chops are outsanding, smoky, thick and moist. A close second is the summertime special, grlled pork and sausage on skewers. A sampler platter allows you to try the chops with the peppery, sauerkraut-topped stuffed cabbage and homemade sausage (which is better homemade sausage (which is better in main courses than reheated in slices as an appetizer). Crepes, chicken and veal are served with creamy paprika sauce made with highly perfumed and fairly peppery Hungarian paprika; the sauce is the best part of those dishes. The wiener schnitzel is heavy and deep-fried. Stick to grilled dishes.And by all means, save room for dessert: housemade dobosh and Sacher tortes or very tart (though insufficiently crusty) apple strudel. Chesapeake Crab House 8214 Piney Branch Rd. Silver Spring. 589-9868. L $2.50-$3.75, D $4-7. Open daily. MC, V. 8940 N. Westland dr. Gaithersburg. 948-2175. L $3.25-$5.75, D $5.75- $14. Open daily. MC. V. When you want to show visitors a Washington cuisine, a crab house is the place to show it. Appetites jaded by Paris, Hony Kong or San Francisco find fresh interest in the discovery of peppery steamed crabs. The newspaper tablecloth and wooden mallet tableware are revelations to newcomers. Washington is, of course, sprinkled with crab houses, most of them in the suburbs. Typical of the genre, an old standby, and closer into the city than most is the Chesapeake Crab House (with a more distant branch in Gaithersburg). You wouldn't expect more than Formica tables and a bit of pine paneling in a crab house, and you don't get more. You do get a choice of five or six sizes of steamed crabs -- lightly steamed, heavily peppered and paprikaed. You could also get unexpectedly delicious fried clams, unexpected because the other prepared dishes -- crab imperial, crab cakes, fried shrimp, fish or oysters -- are second-rate, leaden productions. If you stick to draft beer, steamed crabs and clams, you will never know that this crab house if flawed. Chez Camille 1737 DeSales St. NW. 393-3330. L $4.50-$8.50, D $7.50-$12.50. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Chez Camille is in its second flowering, its provincial French cooking returning to the level that drew it faithful supporters in its old Vermont Avenue location. Its menu has always had its special attractions (couscous, choucroute Alascienne, crayfish in season, stuffed carp, homemade sausages, pigs' feet). But after moving to DeSales Street, to a two-story restaurant with considerably more color than charm, they grew increasingly erratic. Now the old ambition is renewed, evident in the tray of interesting cheese at peak condition one usually sees at the entrance. In warm weather the tall windows are opened, compensating for the tasteless interior. These days the service is competent and attentive. Order from the sheet of plats du jour, but seek the less routine dishes; veal at Chez Camille is no excitement, but couscous is exceptionally good. Asparagus makes an indifferent appetizer, but crayfish bisque is distinguished. Look around to see what the regulars are ordering or ask Camille himself, in order to see the better of this restaurant's two faces. Chez Maria 3338 M St. NW. 337-4283. L $3.95-$5.35, D $4.15-$7.95. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, CV, D, MC, V. By now Washingtonians are worldly wise about Vietnamese menus, and this one is little different from the dozen others in town, except that it is hyphenated with French dishes (that taste Asian anyway) and is served by a couple who treat diners as if they were visitors who had come a long distance. Dinner should begin with imperial rolls, cold paper-thin dough wrappers stuffed with rice, pork, shrimp and scallions. Shrimp toast, too, is uncommonly good. You could also start well with the traditional beef and rice noodle soup flavored with anise and coriander, but it is as substantial as a whole meal. The Vietnamese spring rolls are well-stuffed with pork, crab and noodles, and deftly made. And there are charcoal-grilled skewered meats and shrimps. Those are just the appetizers. And those are the most irresistible part of the meal. Main courses run a less even path. Best of them are the most exotic, the most uniquely Vietnamese in their style, such as cold rice noodles with shredded vegetables, mint, coriander and charcoal-grilled meats. Chez Maria's special attention shows clearest in the wine list. Besides bargain-priced champagne by the glass, you can order many other wines by the glass, and bottles have low markups. Desserts are an eclectic choice of brie, fried and flamed pineapple, creme caramel and a gelatinous, sweet house special dessert. A meal at Chez Maria adds up to more pleasure than any particular dish might imply, for at every turn there is some generous little filip as a garnish or a side dish or a special service. China Garden 4711 Montgomery Lane Bethesda. 657-4666. L $3- $6. D $5-16. Open daily. AE, MC, V. You start off very well at the China Garden, for the several rooms are set with comfortably large tables, and appetizers are extremely good. Chicken rolls are a highly seasoned mixture of chicken, mushrooms and bamboo shoots fried in a lacy coating. Shrimp toast is similarly well fried, and really tastes of shrimp. Egg rolls are fresh and lively. But the pace lets down after the first course; main dishes stumble along with overthickened sauces and dry duck meat. Seafood and vegetable dishes have been largely celery with little seafood. It is a pity, for the seasoning is very deft. When a dish hits -- and the soups especially do hit -- it can be excellent. The menu covers the range of Cantonese dishes and has fixed-price dinner options that are attractive buys. On crowded days (particularly Sundays) service is abrupt, though rapid. The Garden could use a weeding. Clyde's Omelet Room 3236 M St. NW. 333-9180. L $2.75-$6.50, D $4.75-$10.75. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Off to the side of Georgetown's most famous tavern is Clyde's omelet room, a beautiful art nouveau showcase that manages happily to mix French posters and Flemish-style portraits with on-the-scene omelte-making. The place is pretty, and the omelet-and-pasta menue attracts you when a light, casual meal is in order. But fatigue is setting in. The focal point is a grandiose copper and brass espresso machine, but it doesn't work. The ingredients around the omelet pans look limp. Sure enough, on the plate, the omelet is watery and the bacon permeates it with excessive sweetness and saltiness like canned, cured meats. Deep-dish quiche is quite high and handsome, but its pastry is flabby and again the mealy bacon overpowers it. Two successful dishes are the light, refreshing gazpacho -- an easy job -- and green noodles in thick cream sauce with tangy parmesan, though the vegetables of this fettuccine primavera were just plunked on top and cut too large for convenient eating. The ups and downs continue to the end; the starwberry mousse was one of the few worthy enhancements one could make with plain berries, and the coffee was too bitter to seriously consider drinking it. The Company Inkwell 4109 Wilson Blvd. Arlington. 525-4243. 6 $7.75, D $13. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, CV, D, MC, V. Who would expect a fine French restauant to be decorated with horse collars and farm implements and to be called The Company Inkwell? But for nine years The Company Inkwell has managed to maintain a string of surprises as well as an organized dining room and kitchen. In the past half year the format has been altered so that the entire menu changes daily, includes only fresh foods and takes advantage of the seasons. A late-summer menu included duck with fresh peaches -- crisply cooked and sauced with a restrained sweetness. At last check, main courses were highlights, each sauced distinctively, from salmon with a mustardy beurre blanc to thick, pale veal chop with a creamy peppercorn sauce. The emphasis on tableside finishing and flaming (plarticularly of desserts and coffees) works because the dining room staff has long been a stable group of professionals. While the service is formal, the mood is familiar and giddy. Reserve does not last long there. Court of the Mandarins 1824 M St. NW. 223-6666. L $3.50-$5.50, D $4.95-$6.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Court of the Mandarins has two important assets: location and space. It is one of the few Chinese restaurants that is softly lit, quiet, and arranged to allow some privacy between tables. In addition, the service is prompt and efficient, though not always good-natured. The kitchen has undergone a series of changes so that, while the menu has always been extensive and interesting, and the food has tended to be pretty good, it has rarely been memorable. But changes are afoot again, and the results are still to judge. Keep in mind the Court of the Mandarins when you are looking for a downtown restaurant that is not too noisy or crowded or expensive yet has a well-dressed interior. Crisfield 8012 Georgia Ave. Silver Spring. 589-1306. Sandwiches $2.25-$7.50, Platters $7.25-$16.75. Closed Mon. No credit cards. Washingtonians will put up with anything for good seafood. They will wait in line. They will crowd into small ugly booths. They will pay high prices and not mind having their silverware handed to them in a bundle and their plates slid across the table to them. In fact, they love it, at least at Crisfield's. Outsiders might not understand what's so special. After all, the clam chowder tastes halfway between New York and Boston, the menu lists frozen lobster tails as the only lobster dishes, and bleu cheese and crackers sells as a dessert for $3. But ignore the seafoods imported from any farther than the Chesapeake Bay. Eat oysters or clams on the half shell, stewed or steamed. Concentrate on crabmeat and broiled fish. The imperial crab or even better, the flounder or rockfish stuffed with crab, or even the buttery crab Norfolk will leave you dreaming fondly of the line in front of Crisfield's. Don't bother with elaborations like shrimp Creole, and if you need dessert, Gifford's ice cream is just down the road. Frying is a high art at Crisfield's, from the soft-shell crabs to the French fries. The slaw is good. The quirks -- such as charging $2.50 for seven raw clams but$7 for a dozen steamed clams -- are accepted fondly. You might have guessed from the beginning that any restaurant that ugly and that crowded had to be good. Da Vinci 2514 L St. at Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 965-2209. L $4- $8, D $6.50- $12.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC. It has been a pleasure to watch Da Vinci and its neighborhood mature over the past year. The neighborhood has grown fat with new restaurants, and Da Vinci has blossomed into a grand Italian dining place. Its fashionable interior of multi-level brick and blond wood, airy and simple, is quite captivating. While the menu has plenty of attractions among the pastas, veals and such, you should listen carefully to the daily specials, for they tend to includes the extraordinary dishes. Start with pasta, perhaps a small assortment. Cannelone are seasoned with a flourish, gnocchi are light and fragrant with spinach, and one is properly torn whether to try the tortellini or the agnolotti. One day the main dishes might include a fine calf's liver, another day chicken legs stuffed with a mousse-soft ground veal. There are inevitable flaws -- salad dressing that tastes like thinned French's mustard, veal sandwiched with bland ham, weary chicken fra diavolo, oversweet cannoli.And the service is erratic, ranging from effusive to indifferent. But if you order the specials, the original and elaborate dishes that are recommended, and end with an equally original dessert -- powerfully bitter-sweet chocolate cake or cappuccino pie -- you will appreciate the talent of Da Vinci. d.c. space 443 7th St. NW. 347-4960. L $1.85-$3.50, D $3.50- $6. Closed Sun. AE, CB, MC. A ragtag assortment of dining tables, chairs, and benches sets the mood of this whimsical eating place. The walls are a gallery of local art. The waiters and waitresses look like gallery visitors, and act every bit as distracted. And the food seems to be what whoever is in charge happens to feel like doing. Often it is wonderful food, and sometimes it is dull or, even worse, disastrous. There is a dertermined use of sprouts and brown rice, and the only meats to regularly appear on the menu are turkey and a sort of chopped liver that is called pate, both among the better dishes. The trick is probably to avoid ordering dishes that are susceptible to strong nutritional claims, and to expect desserts to be healthy rather than rewarding. For a salad or sandwich, for a lot of food at little cost, for an original setting near National or Ford's Theaters, d.c. space is worth remembering. The Depot 65 S. 3rd St. Warrenton. 703/347-1212. L $2.75-$4.25, D $6.95-$9.25. Closed Thurs. No credit cards. Since Warrenton is on the way to so many weekend destinations, the Depot is a useful restaurant to know. It is truly in a depot, but one that has been restored so that its copper canopy gleams and its brick fireplace works, with accessories such as stained-glass windows added. The menu is on a blackboard, part Middle Eastern and part contemporary American. Prices are moderate, the food is fresh and original, and the tone is amateurish but friendly. That means that service can bog down while your waitress is friendly to other people, and that the kitchen errs in small ways, such as putting the salad on the same plate as other food so the dressing leaks into the main dish. But certain dishes -- stuffed cabbage with sweet-sour gravy, and fluffy, short-crusted quiche -- are unusually good. Other dishes are less successful, and most of the desserts are the same Watergate pastries and Le Sorbet sherbets you can get all over Washington. But the homemade baklava is, if you are prone to extravagant gestures, worth the trip. Dominique 1900 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 452-1126. L $5.95-$8.95, D $6.95-$17.50 L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Dominique's has evolved into a rich mix of lively environment, personalized and attentive service (that sometimes tempts diners to stay on at the party so that the second seating crowds at the entrance) and food that is as reliable as it is elegant. Add to that the pre- and post-theater fixed-price dinners that are outstanding bargains, and you can understand why Dominique's has become a solid favorite among so many diners. Dinner at Dominique's is festive, with a choice of sun-washed front room or dimmer, intensely decorated rear rooms. Aloofness is not part of its vocabulary. The restaurant has gone to great lengths to get unusual, fresh ingredients, from imported trout to white asparagus to rattlesnake. And the kitchen handles competently the range from simple roast chicken with tarragon in a fragrant creamy sauce to lobster stuffed with creamy backfin crab and glazed with hollandaise. While the food can hold its own, Dominique's builds friends with its personality and with such services as valet parking. Duck Chang's 4427 John Marr Dr. Annandale. 941-9400. L $1.95-$3.25, D $3.25-$15.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. The production and serving of Peking ducks is a sight to behold at Duck Chang's. The duck cart is constantly kept busy, the chef's knife in constant motion reducing crisp golden birds to mere carcasses that are returned to the kitchen to be turned into duck meat with bean sprouts and duck skeleton soup (the best buys on the menu). The duck is excellent, its meat tender and juicy, the whole lightly seasoned and more valued for its texture than its seasoning. While duck is the star, Duck Chang's has a full menu of Chinese dishes that are well-prepared and could stand on their own to make the restaurant popular. Beef Duck Chang is tender and smoky flavored, tossed with crisp vegetables. Kung pao chicken is boldly peppered. The food is likely to be good, sometimes outstanding. And the watiers, rushed as they are, try hard to please. Duck Chang's would be among the best of Washington's Chinese restaurants if it didn't pack its diners in so tightly. Chairs are pressed against walls and the backs of other chairs. The room grows noisy and steamy. It is like eating in a rush hour subway station. Under the circumstances, the food can taste better as leftovers the next day. Maybe the solution for Duck Chang's diners is to find a nearby park and get carryout. Duke Zeibert's 1722 L St. NW. 296-5030. L $4.95-$8.95. D $7.95- $15. L daily ex Sat, Sun. D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Duke Zeibert's is deep satisfaction for some, a mystery for others. It is a meat-and-potatoes restaurant with hearty plain American food with a Jewish accent (matzo ball soup that, for its matzo ball but not for its wan broth, compenstates for Jewish mothers being liberated from the kitchen). The dining room is not what you love at first sight. It is a cavern of garish blue and bright red, as crowded as a Coney Island hotdog stand. The service takes some getting used to, for it is pushy, no-nonsense, rapid and impatient; but it is reliable about refilling and emptying whatever needs it. A meal starts with a basket of good onion rolls and fair pumpernickel plus a dish of half-sour pickles that are worth the trip. Food is served in gargantuan portions, and the raw ingredients -- steak, prime rib, fish, seafood, pot roast -- are the best. What is served is plain food, boiled or broiled or roasted with no floss, no elaborate sauces, little seasoning. It is reliable. Sometimes it is dull. For plain broiled fish or boiled beef in the pot, Duke's is the place to go. Especially if you like to end a meal with a pound or so of dense, creamy homemade cheesecake unfortunately encrusted with strawberries that could pass for Lucite-coated. One expects to leave Duke's satisfied; one can be sure of leaving Duke's full. El Bodegon 1637 R St. NW. 667-1710. L $3.95-$6.9, D $5.50-$11.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Some restaurants could get by on their personality alone if they had to. El Bodegon does not have to, but it is a restaurant with an enthusiastic greeting, well-costumed dining rooms and flamenco dancers to accompany your paella. The owner-host comes by to pour a stream of wine down your throat. Singing "Happy Birthday" is a major production complete with flaming flan. And, not just becuase the rooms are crowded and the tables close, conversations cross tables along with samples of food on occasion. The food is Spanish with a high proportion of beefsteaks. The hearty soup, caldo gallego, is smoky with ham, thick with beans and leafy greens, a near-meal at a bargain price.Cold mussels in chunky vinaigrette are a light start, and a better choice than empanadas. Among the main dishes, squid is excellently stuffed with ham and accented with wine and garlic. Paella is well-laced with seafood, its rice infused with briny flavor. Veal is pale, tender, brightened with peppers and the like. Chicken is even more lively, with chunks of chorizo and ham and potato slices to soak up its sherried brown sauce. The food is strong and hearty, likeable. Sangria goes well, being only minimally sweetened. For dessert there is a refreshing pineapple mousse. The menu lists more -- a half-dozen more desserts, nearly two dozen main courses. And such festivity at such moderate prices suggests finding more opportunities to sample them. El Caribe 3288 M St. NW. 338-3121. L $3.25-$6.95, D $5.95-$10.50. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. 1828 Columbia Rd. NW. 234-6969. L $3.25-$6.95, D $4.95-$8.25. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Like the Thai Room and Bamiyan, the tiny restaurant El Caribe has opened a second branch yet maintained the high level of the first. Both branches are attractively decorated to look distinctively Latin American. The menus are similar at both, though the Georgetown branch is priced slightly higher to accommodate its higher rent. The columbia Road branch is smaller, closer, more crowded; it's impossible to hold a conversation there when the guitarist is playing (though he is entertaining). At both branches, waiters respond to the hectic pace by becoming increasingly brusque, though they can also be charming and solicitous. It is hard to get past the appetizers: The shrimp afloat in garlic sauce look punny but taste wonderful, the fried squid are lilght and crisp, the ceviche is pleasantly pungent, and the empanadas are savory. Main dishes come with mountains of black beans and rice, very well prepared. Main dishes are samplings from Spain and several Latin American countries. Bolivia can be proud of El Caribe's sweet and tangy tongue, Spain of its squid stuffed with ham and seafood. Hefty stews of pork with bananas and root vegetables or rabbit in wine sauce are interesting intertwinnings of fragrances and textures. rAnd the restaurants themselves are a satisfying blend of stylish surroundings and personable food at moderate prices. El dOrado 1832 Columbia Rd. NW. 232-0333. L,D $3.50-$6.95. Open daily. Ae, CB, D, MC, V. El Dorado strikes a middle ground, neither as inexpensive nor as rough-edged as the Omega on one side, nor as elaborate in decor or prices as El Caribe on the other side. The restaurant has a distinctly Spanish look, with stucco walls and dark wood, but it stops far short of being cute. Service is well-organized. And the food is good hearty cooking, well-seasoned and very generous. Ceviche, for instance, is not a measly appetizer plate, but a platter full of tart marinated fish and onions. Its hot peppers are assigned judiciously, so the dish is tangy rather than searing. hThe main dishes go on for pages, ranging from paella and enchiladas to steaks and mariners' platters. At the price, few shrimp dishes in town match the camarones enchilados al Dorado, the juicy fat shrimps in a sauce faintly sweet and mildly hot, decorated with pimientos and peas. Rabbit may be dry, but its winey sauce with a paprika bite is delicious. Along with main dishes come mountains of buttery rice and black beans. Finish with coffee, very strong and very good. El Rancho 6785 Wilson Blvd. Falls Church. 533-8100. L $2.95-$3.95, D, $4.80-$7.75. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. MC, V. Personality is the strong point at El Rancho; the staff work at making dinner fun, welcoming people into their circle. Thus, this simple Mexican restaurant has developed an army of faithfuls. A couple of dishes -- burritos and chilis rellenos -- deserve the loyalty. Otherwise, the kitchen has bent too far to what they must see as Americans' taste. Dishes are to bland, too sweet, too salty. You can add hot sauce to rectify the blandness is some cases, but your safest course is to stick to nachos as a start, burritos and chili relleno, and finish with light fried, honey-drenched sopaipillas. El Tio Pepe 2809 M St. NW. 337-0730. L $3.25- $8.50, D $7.50-$12.95. Closed Sun. AE, D, MC, V. The combination of good food, pleasant surroundings and entertainment is an uncommon accomplishment in restaurants. And these days El Tio Pepe is dishing up all of the above. A two-story Spanish restaurant with flamenco dancer and guitarist alternating between the floors, El Tio Pepe serves as fine a paella as Washington has, with each ingredient adequately seasoned and accurately cooked so that the rice it-self tastes as good as the meats and seafood. Start with crab and olive-stuffed clam shells or garlicky broiled shrimps. Soups are less successful than appetizers. Main dishes rarely miss, but the filet of bass in seafood sauce and boned squab stuffed with veal and ham take best advantage of the kitchen's talents. Veal infused with lemon, is also a good choice. For dessert, a delciate flan or more elaborate profiteroles are satisying. Enriqueta's 2811 M St. NW. 338-7772. L $3.75-$5.25, D $5.50-$8.75. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Put aside any Tex-Mex preconceptions. Enriqueta's is an authentic Mexican restaurant with a menu listing a variety of styles of cooking, tastes and textures, only a few of them hot. Enriqueta's menu changes daily, but it draws from a repertoire of 10 different kinds of guacamole. Its enchiladas might be topped with a spicy red chile sauce, a piquant green sauce, mild sour cream with herbs and tomatoes or an onion-tomato-chile sauce. And there are seafood dishes -- mussels Veracruz, shrimps Mazatlan or Acapulco -- that are totally unrelated to Tex-Mex tortilla-based food. Enriqueta's, in season, serves large red chiles stuffed with pork, fruits, nuts and herbs. Another time large green chiles will be stuffed with walnuts and meats. The food is fresh, vivid in flavors and colors, with intriguing textural contrasts and unexpectedly contrasting tastes. Sauces are far from the pasty, homogeneous taco-stand sauces. Dishes are prettily garnished with molded servings of rice and red onion rings and herbs. And the refried beans are sauve, buttery, delicious. This is sophisticated food, and the prices reflect it. It is served with flair and energy, in a festive-looking room, colorful with painted wooden chairs, noisy and busy. Some dishes may be sufficiently unfamiliar so that they are disappointing, but most likely, from the home-made chicken soup with white cheese and avocados to the bunuelos that taste like fried clouds, Enriqueta's will teach you something you are glad to know about Mexican food. Fio's 3636 16th St. NW. 667-3040. L, D, $3- $6. Closed Mon.AE, D, MC, V. Fio's is a period piece, a representation of the '50s, from the curved pink Formica counter that snakes through its center, to the prices. On a Saturaday night.Fio's has the ambience of a Greyhound bus station in full dress. One corner is sectioned off by ornate metal fencing and turned into a Mediterranean nook by a pastel mural. The tables around this island are a sea of burgundy vinyl cloths set with assorted candles dripping freeform sculptures onto their holders. A juke box alternates the Platters and Mario Lanza. Here is the mythically correct setting for pizza of heroic quality, homemade pastas of unsung glory, veal dishes of noble character. The myth is completed by the peasant prices. Most of the menu consists of a recitation of daily specials. Head first for the pastas, the full range of standrads, some fashioned from homemade noodles and priced at half of most restaurants' levels. This is assertive Southern Italian food, and the tomato sauces are the best of the kitchen. Don't waste your visit on cream sauces or the likes of fettucine Alfredo. The yeasty, chewy pizza has the earthiness of good bread, topped with a light wash of tomato chunks and cheese, plenty of herbs and olive oil. The full range of veal dishes is listed, though not always available; the veal is excellent tender meat, aptly cooked. But the specials deserve special attention, along with the memorable oiled and garlicked vegetables that accompany them. Service is slow and sometimes confused. Fio's serves food with no pretense of refinement or delicacy, and when it is too busy the kitchen shows it. But the food is hearty and homestyle, and the light touch is where it counts -- in the pricing. Florida Avenue Grill 1100 Florida Ave. NW. 265-1586. B $1.45-$3.75. L, D $3.10-$4.80. L, D daily, closed Sun. No crdit cards. You won't find it in the phone book, but the Florida Avenue Grill has all the word-of-mouth publicity it needs, and keeps its few tables and long counter busy from early morning to closing time. It is an old-fashioned diner with Southern food served in enormous portions. For about $4 you can get a montain of pan-fried chicken or ham hocks or spareribs or meat loaf shored up with tow other mountains of vegetables -- cooked greens or cabbage, sweet potatoes or potato salad, beans or rice. Despite a tendency to oversweeten the salads and barbecue sauces, the food is very good, seasoned heartily with black pepper. The corn muffins -- crunchy with white cornmeal -- are even better. And breakfast, with grits, scrapple, home fries and hot biscuits, is rib-sticking. For a light snack you ca get a quarter of a fried chicken between two slices of bread fro under $2. The place is a favorite with Howard University medical students, taxi drivers (who may respond to your telling your destination with, "So the word is out") and whoever has managed to find the place once. Cornbread like that doesn't happen too often in a lifetime. The Foggy Bottom Cafe 924 25th St. NW. (in the River Inn ). 338-8707. B $2.50- $4, D $3.95- $9.95. B daily, D daily ex Sat. AE, CB, D, MC, V. You could have breakfast at the Foggy Bottom Cafe' with excellent croissants and French toast nade from brioche, or you could have dinner; in either case, the food is fresh and well-prepared, more interesting in its presentation than in its description. The dinner menu is short but varied, with a club sandwich, hamburger, chef's salas, steak with bearnaise, tempura and barbecued ribs. It is expected to expand along with the hours, when and if a liqour licensc is granted. In each dish the message comes across that the kitchen cares about the quality of its ingredients -- roasting turkey fresh, for instance -- and never strays into convenience foods. Occasionally daily specials such as liver with mustard sauce will emerge as stars. And the side dishes are gracious, particularly the shoestring potatoes, hair-thin, crisp, light and outrageously good. The dining room staff is inexperienced and hesitant but eager. And the setting is pleasant, with polished brass curving along the flow of the wooden bar, unusual sprays of flowers and ornate Chinese-style service plates. On the wall are magnificent prints of outsize flowers, and outside the window is a flower garden. The Foggy Bottom Cafe' itself is a welcome bloom in the Kennedy Center neighborhood's culinary desert. In the midst of the plans for upgrading the food at the Kennedy Center and the Watergate, the Foggy Bottom Cafe' has been keeping people well-fed in the interim. Geranio 724 King St. Alexandria. 548-0088. L $3.90-$6.50, D $7.25-$12.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Geranio is, in the true spirit of Italian restaurants, uncomplicated. It is simply adorned with white-washed brick walls and it is straight-forward in its preparation of fresh foods. Upstairs and downstairs the rooms are small, with colorful pink tablecloths. Besdies the menu, specials are written on a blackboard; order from that list. Soup is high art in the kitchen. Pastas are good, those with cream saucecould use a pinch of something zesty. Fried mozzarrella here is crisp, oozing, light. Veal is excellent, sauced gently and accompanied by pleasant vegetable side dishes. Look for occasional flights of fancy like cold trout in red wine, vinegar and onions, The kitchen usually offers for dessert a single tart of unremarkable character or berries in season. But the delicacies in this house are soups, salads, veal and the chef's daily whims. Germaine's 2400 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 965-1185. L $2.95-$6.95, D $5.95-$18. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, D, MC, V. After the first dazzle of quietly beautiful surroundings and elegant Pan-Asian cooking in Germaine's, it is time for a more reflective assessment. Rarely is good Oriental food available in festive surroundings. Germaine's skylit interior, with its rich woods and fabrics, alone sets it above the crowd. The menu is personalized, mostly Vietnamese, with Cjinese, Korean, Thai and the like. Central features of the dining room and the menu are meats and shrimps grilled over an open hearth; the lemon grass spareribs are perfumed, smoky and succulent, and the sates are superior tiny servings of skewered meats.Try them as appetizers, along with rice-paper-wrapped Vietnamese spring rolls, improved snce the early days. Shrimp and sweet potato cakes from the Phillipines are very good, For main dishes, the pork with eggplant is spicy and sauve, the basil beef tantilizing. Fish dishes vary, and sometimes suffer from overcooking. Then there is the question of value. Ounce by ounce, the grilled dishes are outrageously priced. Bon-bon chicken was mostly cucumber, with am embarrasingly small portion of chicken. Delicacy is sometimes confused with penuriousness. This, along with the occasionally neglectful service, worries me about this otherwise fine and original restaurant. Glass Union 9021 Gaithersburg Rd. Gaithersburg. 840-2228. L $1.50-$7.50, D, $5-$14.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V.. d if the neiman-Marcus catalogue depicted a gift spaceship, it would probably be furnished like the Glass Onion. It is dim and smooth and soft-looking, with glass panels and sunbursts and curved booths studded with tiny lights. and if the National Lampoon devised a dinner menu for a first-class spaceship it would read like the Glass Onion's, with the prices written out (Four thirty-five -- is that the price or the time it is served?) and the kind of senseless, high-toned prose that suggesta that "you consider your preference when placing your dinner order," The wine list recommends that, due to their wines' special nature, you inform the restaurant of your selection at least 24 hours in advance. The special list? Blue Nun, Mateus, Taylor. At exorbitant prices. The food follows suit, stringy dark veal with tough frozen lobster bits, thin pallid steak that tastes steamed and is served with marrow still in the bone, with no way to extricate the marrow itself. The service aspired to compensate for the restaurant's deficiencies. Hopeless task The golden booeymonger 1701 20th St. NW. 234-1252. L $2.75-$4.75, D $7.25-$11.50. L daily ex Mon, D daily. AE, MC, V. The setting is a mansion of great elegance: the staircase alone is a thing of beauty to remember. But that does not excuse overpriced, gloppy seafood platters or startingly indifferent service, $4 to $5 sandwiches of flabby meats on tough, heat-scarred breads, fried chicken that would be acceptable -- but not at $8. The menu is ambitious, encompassing burgers and veal Oscar, but it tastes as if cooked by a jack-of-all trades. Doing less and doing it well would better serve the luscious setting. Golden Ox 1615 L St. NW. 347-0010. L $1.25-$10.15, D $4.55-$12.50. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, D, MC, V. If this is the tourist restuarant it is said to be, the tourists are not getting a fair view of Washington. The Golden Ox is a steak house in the red-leatherette, gargantuan-portion, second-rate-food tradition. The servers try hard but stumblr through inaccuracy after inaccuracy because they don't know much about the kitchen. The kitchen, in the meantime, grills steaks too slowly so they are rare but hardly crusty. No matter, the meat shows little marbling or meaty flavor anyway. The tartar steak is mild and oily, brought to the table pre-mixed; it is not bad, but hardly worth the fame the reataurant claims for it. Soups taste as if they start in packages, and desserts taste as if they started in different bakeries. The best I can say about the restaurant is that you can, according to the menu, order almost any of the wines by the half bottle, and that the prices of full bottles are as low as half bottles at many other downtown restuarants. Golden Palace 726 7th St. NW. 783-1225. L $4-$5.50, D $5- $14. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. Two rooms heavily festooned with red lacuer and gilt identify the Golden Palace as one of Washington's important Chinese restaurants. Its large tables, with plenty of space between them, accentuate the compfort. And the menu, though abbreviated from previous years, is an adequate catalogue of Cantonese cuisine ranging from nine kinds of duck (including duck feet) to sauteed squid and fried snails with a black bean sauce. At lunch there are dozens of varieties of dim sum -- served on carts on Sundays. Steamed dim sum are more apt to please than fried ones, for the latter are likely to be greasy. End a dim sum lunch with fragile, short-crusted tarts. The dinner menu has lately disappointed more than it did in previous years. Sauces were oversalted; beef tasted tenderized. If they were less salty, deep fried spiced squab would be delicious, so crisp and lacquered was its skin. Stir-fried dishes are nicely turned with crisp vegetables and tender seafoods. sAnd old standbys such as lo mein are deftly seasoned. But the flaws are grave, and service careens form helpful to sullen. The Golden Palace needs to pull out of its middle-age slump. Harvey's 1001 18th St. NW. 833-1858. $4.95-$8.95 D $9.75-$14.95. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. If you know your way around Harvey'sit's a fine seafood restaurant. But it is full of pitfalls. Its main assets are impeccable ingredients, from the crabmeat and flounder to the California wines and top-brand liquors. Tables are well-spaced, roomy, but the lighting makes reading the menu an effort. No matter, the waiters and waitresses offer real assistance in ordering, and cheerfully pace your meal as you wish, for speed or dallying Soups are thick, creamy, dull or conservative depending on your point of view. Plainest dishes are best: crab imperial with giant soft lumps of backfin and just a light wash of sauce, tiny and perfectly sauteed soft-shells in season (with superfluous grapes), plain grilled fish that could not be better. Vegetables are inventive, coleslaw well made. But steer clear of Frech elaborations and stick to plain local seafood. Hunam 3299 M St. NW. 338-3200. L $3.50- $16, D $4.50- $16. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, B. Once called Trudie's, this sophisticated, curved, two-tiered green-and-white Chinese restaurant has been transformed into the Hunam, but the transformation is incomplete. Prices have been lowered to normal, and the cooking has been refined to include some well-prepared whole fish and unusual sweet-smoky pork with vegetables. Still, there are soupy, murky beef with scallops, lumpy fried rice, and other dishes unexpectedly commendable or indifferent. The service, however is the stuff of slapstick comedy: no plates brought with the food; the entire staff disappearing from the floor for long periods; pancakes brought after the main dishes were eaten; tea that never appeared at all. Trudie's by any other name. . . Hunan Garden 2104 Veirs Mill Rd. Twin Brook Shopping Center. Rockville. 340-6880. L $2.25-$3.25, $3.75- $5. Open daily. AE, MC, V. A kind of middling Chinese restaurant, Human Garden serves pretty good food that could do with some refinements, but charges modest prices for it. The furnishings underwent an incomplete metamorphosis from Spanish to Chinese. Service is noncommittal. The menu is extensive, typical of local Chinese restaurants but with a couple more Human dishes than is common. Two noteworthy dishes are the assorted cold hors d'oeuvres, an outstanding quantity of four spicy cold meats and fish, and shredded pork with hot garlic sauce. Its scallion-garlic- vinegar-soy balance is tempting, but it could use more peppercorn heat. Chicken with pine nuts, pale meat dotted with diced red and green peppers, is tossed with an impressive quantity of those expensive nuts. And it would be a fine dish if the meat were left more moist and the seasonings slightly more bold. But as a reasonably priced neighborhood Chinese restaurant, Human Garden serves good purpose. Hwei Ping 7305 Arlington Blvd. Loehmann's Plaza. Falls Church. 573-8844. L $2.95-$5.25, D $4.45-$8.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. This nicely decorated, contemporary-mode Chinese restaurant has fallen into a slump, apparent from the moment you are handed a dingy, badly spotted menu. Waiters seem not to be listening when you speak to them, then serve with a dramatic flourish. The food, too, has its niceties rendered ineffective by serious flaws. Steamed dumplings are well-seasoned and served with delectable dipping sauces, but the dumplings are heavy and dried out. Human beef is a delicious spicy interplay, but the beef is clumsily hacked. Tea-smoked duck is crisp and fat-free, very savory, but its meat is worn out from reheating. And steamed whole fish tastes bitter and strong. It is too bad that such an attractive restaurant, so ambitious that it offers seven lamb and six duck dishes on its long menu, has grown so lax. II Giardino 1110 21st St. NW. 223-4555. L $7-$12.50, D $8.50-$13.75. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. There are three good reasons for eating at II Giardino: ambience, agnolotti and dessert. Bare tile floors, antique sideboards and well-spaced tables combine with the usually expert service to make an evening exceedingly comfortable, at least unless you have a problem that the maitre d'hotel must handle with too-frequent abrasiveness. The long menu is studded with French dishes such as duck with orange sauce, and the wine list is half French and all overpriced. The food tends to be high quality and correct, but is seldom memorable, except for the agnolotti. In general, pasta is the best course until you reach dessert, but since the pastries displayed on the sideboard draw your eye throughout the meal, nobody needs to remind you to save room. II Nido 4712 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 363-2672. L $4-95-$6.50, D $6-$10.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, CB, MC, V. Sometimes I wounder if II Nido is two restaurants, sharing space on alternate nights. The reports are so good and so bad, rarely in between. The dining room staff has been changed since the restaurant's early days, and it now seems reliably correct. One of the prettiest of new restaurants, II Nido keeps its sparkle of burgundy tiles and brightly striped fabrics and now has a few outdoor tables. Its Italian menu is not long, and is expensive, but lists dishes -- risotto, fregnace -- not easily found elsewhere. Pastas are excellent, particularly the light, thin strands of homemade noodles called chitarra. The sauces have personality; whether pepper- and parsley-flecked clam sauce or pesto. Main courses, too, show the saucemaker's flair, and fried dishes such as frittura mista illustrate how light and greaseless frying can be. But there is a tendency towards overcooking that ruins veal and mutes fish and lamb. For dessert, skip the pastries and order instead orange-flavored semifreddo with Grand Marnier or zabaglione. Center your meal on pastas and vegetables, and hope you have hit II Nido on a good day. Intermission White Flint Mall.Rockville. 881-3360. L $2.95-$3.95, D $4.75-$8.95. L daily ex Sun, D daily ex Mon. AE, MC, V, White Flint. In this reasonably priced Italian restaurant, the pastas are homemade and the combinations imaginative, but there are as many undistinguished dishes as noteworthy ones. Nevertheless, an unbelievably inexpensive buffet-movie combination in conjunction with the movie theater across the mall has put this restaurant on the map. Even without the buffet bargain, through, the restaurant is reasonably priced and enhanced by the environmental pizzazz of its disco origins. Besides, the escarole and bean soup is the kind that made Italian mothers famous. Pastas are fine. Not great, mind you, but nice food. Main courses are mostly veal, though you can get adequately garlicky scampi. The specialty, chicken scallops stuffed with sausage and vegetables in champagne sauce, sounds great but it tastes just good. Veal has been known to be cooked to death, but the kitchen does well with simple chicken scallopine. Avoid the pizza. Intermission is an adequately good Italian restaurant in a useful location, reasonably priced and staffed with eager young servers. And it looks like a shopping center version of Studio 54, which it is. Iron Gate Inn 1734 N St. NW. 737-1370. L $2.50-$6.50, D $4.95-$8.50. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. When warm weather comes, it would not matter if the Iron Gate Inn charged you for bringing your lunch; its garden is so delightful that people would eat there no matter what. The old inn is charming in the winter, too, but summer is its season. The food is Middle Eastern, nothing you would cross a dessert for, but perfectly acceptable food at moderate prices. The hummos and baba ghanouj are served with warmed pita. The baked eggplant with lamb and rice absorbs the flavors of tomato, olive oil and onions to turn a succulent near-paste. Stuffed grape leaves and stuffed cabbage and indifferent, and couscous is just a stew rather than the pungment interplay it should be. But the fare is all at least average, and enhanced by being served in a grape arbor, to the sound of birds rather than music. And the baklava is very light and sweetened with restraint, and outstanding version of this syrupy confection. *%Jean-Pierre 1835 K. St. NW. 466-2022. L $6-$9.75, D $9.75- $14. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. As French culinary competition grows more intense, Jean-Pierre has responded with an increasingly exciting menu, some dishes unique and uniquely delicious. Its rillettes des deux saumons may be the best fish pate in town. And brioche topped with marrow and pink butter is a sumptuous appetizer. Among main dishes, overcooking of seafood directs attention to meat dishes. Round up a friend to share grilled beef rib with roquefort sauce. Consider yourself lucky if rare duck breast with mint or lamb filet with fennel are amoung the specials. Sauces these days are delicate in texture and aromatic with fresh herbs. Vegetables are given welcome attention. Desserts include a buttery, moist chocolate almond cake and wonderful crepe souffle with chestnuts. The dining room is no beauty, and service can be haughty, particularly towards women. There are too many specials recited for any reasonably intelligent person to be expected to remember. But the menu and wine list encourage one to be patient with flaws. Jerry's Seafood (The Village Pub) 9384 Lanham Severn Rd. Seabrook, Md. 577-5161. L, D $4.25-$9.25. Open daily, MC, V. Jerry's looks like it has terrible food, and its prices for seafood are so low that expectations drop even further. But anyone who happens in and encounters Jerry himself tablehopping will soon discover the secret.Jerry is obsessive about his seafood. When he steams his crabs, he pierces and drains them one by one, which is why they are firm and silken rather than musky. Jerry makes two crab soups, one a faintly curried cream, the other a fresh, lively tomato vegetable with bits of ground meat. Both are made with lumps of backfin crab. Jerry's crab cakes are heroic in their restraint, being just backfin crab and mayonasie and crab seasoning. That's all. No filler in evidence. His crab imperial is similarly simple and therefore marvelous. Most of Jerry's seafood is fried, and therein lies a flaw. YouVe got to appreciate grease. Jerry's fried clams are soft and juicy, their batter crisp. But greasy. The fried onions rings and French-fried mushrooms are just-made and very good. But greasy. Concentrate on local seafoods, preferably baked or broiled. And expect no glamor. It is an ex-tavern, a homestyle operation. And you have to wait while, Jerry cooks everyone's fish himeself. But few restaurants care so much about waht they do to that fish. And few care so little about profit that they price it so low. Jockey Club 2100 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 659-8000. L $7.50-$11.25, D $9.75-$17.50. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. One of the handsomest of Washington's dining rooms, the Jockey Club is dim and intimate, plush with leather banquettes and extravagant flowers, brass and dark wood. The menu is French, with touches from New York's 21; the service is as polished as the surroundings. The food, however, intersperses high points with failures, apparently suffering from the kitchen's concentration on banquet business. Crab dishes are best, particularly the lightly curried Crab Jockey. Soups are highlights. And sauces can be excellent. But then there are the occasional burned dishes or dull preparations or overcooking that have no place in such a high-priced repertoire. Rice pudding and cheesecake are exceptional desserts here, and the wine list has an admirable selection of California's better wines. The raw material is there for a fine restaurant, but it settles for too little in its standards. Joe and Mo's 1211 Connecticut Ave. NW. 659-1211. L $4- $7, D $9.50- $17. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Though the dining room is wrapped in blue velvet and tapestries, the personality of the dining room relies on the human beings one encounters, from the hosts who play a comedy team to the waiters who act like pals and inside tipsters. They leave the impression, particularly at dinner when the pace is more leisurely, that if there is anything you need -- from a fork to the winner of the third race at bowie -- they will have it for your nearly before you request it. The menu is simple steakhouse food, the king you hope to find throughout America but rarely do. There are sirloin, porterhouse, filet and prime rib, several fresh fish steaks, a couple of veal scallops, duck and individual rack of lamb. Bring a voracious appetite. Not only are the portions enormous, but the bread is of stellar character. The most satisfying appetizer is likely to be soup; but the main dishes are stars here. Roast beef has the flavor of real beef, aged beef, beef bred on good feed. Blue ribbon stuff. The steaks are well-aged and full-flavored. The beef is matched by fish steak, impeccably fresh nd unsullied by anything but grill marks. The most obvious flaw in Joe and Mo's kitchen is a tendency towards gimmickry; it ought to limit itself to being a monument to good plain food. Daily specials such as meat loaf are homey, served with surprises like real mashed potatoes. But besides meat and fish, all you have to know about are the potato pancakes and fried onions rings. Such a meal as one east at Joe and Mo's is properly ended with a cup of good coffee and a doggie bag, both of which are available. Kalorama Cafe 2228 18th St. NW. 667-1022, L, D $1.50-$6.95. L daily, D daily ex Sun, closed Mon. No credit cards. Like as '60s coffee house, Kalorama Cafe wears a homespun lived-in and cared-for look. Assorted printed tablecloths, brick walls, and an open kitchen make this tiny restaurant look neighborly, and the blackboard outside the door, listing the daily specials, acts as a welcome mat. The short menu is close to vegetarian, with only fish and shrimp breaking the vegetable barrier.Tempura -- either fish, shrimp or plain vegetable -- is available every day, and it is excellent, its batter light and wispy, the shrimp large and juicy, each vegetable fully cooked but still crisp. Broiled fish is fresh and soy-seasoned, cooked beautifully. Accompanying salads are dressed with an interesting combination of soy and lemon. Even the rice on the plates, brown rice with soy sauce and scallions, is admirable. Daily specials are an eclectic mix of lasange, Indonesian vegetables, lentil pates and the like. Two cautions are needed: This very casual, amateur operation can be unreliable (badly burning the felafel, for instance), and desserts are heavy and wheaten, tasting like you ought to eat them rather than want to eat them. Sometimes there is folk music in the evenings. King's Contrivance 8143 Route 32 Columbia. 301/596-3455. L $3.25-$6.25, D $7.50-$10.50. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily, MC. A ride to the country, a quiet tree-lined road, a mansion of beauty restored to pristine Colonial condtion. That is the King's Contrivance. Each small room is decorated fro a different mood: light, bright flowers on the walls in one, more quiet formality in another, a third an enclosed porch shaded by tall trees. The service seems a training ground for eager young waiters-to-be. The wine list is handsome, handwritten, larded with important labels, But our wine was not in good condtion, yet pronounced healthy by the maitre d'hotel. That is one's first introduction to the fact that this very lovely and quite popular restaurant serves only passable food. The rillettes taste not of duck and truffles, as the menu promises, but of ham, making it very salty. And one wonders why a pate would be served on a block of ice. Marinated shrimp sat in an excellent remoulade sauce, but had sat too long, so the shrimp were tough and the sauce fermenting. Entrecote was thin and chewy. Crab Dewey drowned in its alcohol. The star of the meal was a puree of creamed cauliflower. Yet each dish tasted close enough to success that one wished the kitchen would just take a little more care, taste more carefully and freshen up its preparations to live up to the surroundings. Kowloon 1105 H St. NW. 638-4243. L $2-$5.50. D $3.75- $35. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. A few blocks away from Chinatown is a Cantonese restaurant worth remembering, at least if you are willing to forgive some serious defects. What should draw you to the restaurant is its extensive Cantonese menu that includes dozens of very good dim sum at lunch time (served on rolling carts on weekends). It lists atypical dishes such as chicken livers (though ours turned out to be gizzards) with onions and chow foon, those soft thick noodels that so delectably absorb their gravy. Its roast duck is not only very good, it is the best duck buy in recent history. Moo shi pork is smoky flavored and crunchy. Yes, there is a tendency to overthicken sauces, but the food is otherwise well-prepared and modestly priced, and the room is spacious, uncrowded and decorated in soothing green and white rather than riotous red. The reason to be wary, though, is that service can be sullen, painfully slow, hostile if you complain. Kramerbooks & afterwords 1517 Connecticut Ave. NW. 387-1462. L, D $2.50-$4.50. Open daily. No credit cards. 1347 Connecticut Ave. NW. 293-2072. L, D $2.25- $3.50.Closed Sun. No credit cards. 1912 I St. NW. 466-3111. L, D $2.50- $8. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Kramerbrooks has combined two valuable services -- bookstores and cafes -- to provide a chain of considerable attraction. The chain has grown to include a brasserie above Dupont Circle, a smaller confiserie below Dupont Circle, and the newest and largest, a brasserie on I Street. Only the third serves grilled hamburgers; the rest serve sandwiches, salads, cheeses, pates, quiches and soups plus a dessert array from sundaes to pastries. Tiny marble tables are crammed in like the books on the shelves in the fronts of the shops. Some are open for breakfast or late into the night, some have outdoor tables. But the food for all the shops is made centrally and has improved considerably as the chain has grown. Soups are now homemade and very good. Quiches are delicate, though the crust is apt to be soggy. Salads, particularly potato salads, are fresh and crunch with celery and peppers. Still, the sandwiches are skimpy for the price, and breads are victims of mishandling. Pastries are deservedly best-sellers; if you appreciate happy endings, the honeynut cake is a sleeper, the blackout cake a denser construction but definitely popular stuff. Or, at least outside of the main lunch and dinner hours, a carafe of wine and a paperback thriller may suffice. Khyber Pass 2309 Calvert St. NW. 234-4632. D only , $5-$7.50. Open daily, Mc, V. See Bamiyan review. La Bergerie 220 N. Lee St. Alexandria. 683-1007. L $4.50-$7.50, D $8.50-$13.25. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, MC, V. French restaurants are plentiful, but Basque dishes in a French resaurant are rare. For those alone, La Bergerie merits distinction among Washington's French restaurants. It serves piperade, that pepper-tomato-onion omelet topped with ham, a Basque seafood platter that tastes of its Spanish borders in its garlicky tomato sause, and preserved duck sauteed with potatoes and mushrooms. La Bergerie is an attraction for other reasons as well. It is arranged with curved booths and tables placed to afford privacy, and since the addition of lush plants, well-lit paintings and a royal blue ceiling to match the draperies and chairs, it has become a warm-looking, lovely restaurant. The service has always been elegant and attentive. Besides the Basque dishes, order the daily specials, which the captain recites with his verbal emphasis on their freshness. The best of the kitchen shows in scallops a la nage (available on 48 hours' notice or sometimes as a special), lightly steamed with julienned vegetables and afloat in a buoyant cream sauce. Mousse of chicken liver is sumptuous. Terrine of scallops is a pretty white-on-white mosaic with vividly dill-flavored cumcumber salad. There is clumsiness -- an oafish cream suace on perfectly grilled lamb chops -- but crisp vegetables and well-executed pastries redeem the kitchen. La Brasserie 239 Massachusetts Ave. NE. 546-9154. L $3.15-$5.75. D $3.15-$9.50. Closed Sun. MC, V. A pretty little cafe with tile tables set inches from each other and outdoor tables under umbrellas, La Brasserie is a insiders' restaurant where it is important to know how to get a fine meal. If you look around, you will spot the insiders by the bowls with pastry domes sitting in front of them. They start with la bourride, a creamy seafood bisque presented under a top hat of falky, buttery pastry that crumbles into the soup as you eat it. They go on to a salade Raymond, an imaginative contrast of crunchy walnuts and smooth blue cheese with endive and watercress. Every day brings fresh main courses handwritten on the menu, and each list includes fish and veal, both of which the restaurant does well. Among fish courses, only the quenelles have been a disappointment. dThe everyday menu lists scallops with leeks, crab with curry, two steaks and lamb chops in pastry. If that were all the choices, La Brasserie would be just another competent, mid-priced French restaurant. But it also serves light dished -- puff pastry filled with chicken or seafood, quiches and double-crusted vegetable pies, as well as hefty salads and sandwiches. Pastry-cased dishes are good choices. Pastries for dessert look attractive, but are often not as delicate as they look. The most oxtraordinary dessert is creme brulee. Thus, Washington adds another to its list of moderately priced, moderately ambitious French restaurants where the food is good and the setting unpretentious. But this one is bracketed by a remarkable beginning in its bourride and a remarkable ending in its creme brulee. La Casita $725 8th St. SE. 543-9022. L $3.15-$4.95, D $2-$9.85. Opens daily. AE, MC, V. La Casita is Washington's pinata party. The interior looks every bit as irresistible as a fringed paper pinata. Mexican tiles in every color, in dozens of geometric and floral shapes, creep up the walls and group into painted tile is painted wood or curved, clay roof tiles.Even the food is red and green and flower-shaped and arranged with craft. The menu reads like a fence covered with posters, with its mix-and-match dinners, grilled meats and two pages of a la carte items five kinds of chiles rellenos, 16 different tacos). Among this official graffiti is a full encyclopedia of Tex-Mex dishes and a few unfamiliar ones. Tacos are either the usual crisp shels or the more unusual soft-puffy shells. One weekends there is pit-barbecued brisket and charcal-coked baby goat Which tastes parboiled and dry). The food is good, but not alway as good as the prices imply. Tortillas are fresh and delicious, but fillings lack the zest one expects. Clear winners on the menu are empanadas and tripe soup. Tortilla-wrapped dished are meaty and substantial, if not exciting. And charcoal-grilled skewered meats are piquant. But you can miss by a mile with some dishes. Tamales are dry and crumbly, guacamole pasty and underseasoned. You can tack on a happy ending with crisp sopaipillas and glorious thick hot chocolate. But prices at La Casita are high for Tex-Mex food, particularly when so much of it is undistinguished. La Chaumiere 2813 M St. NW. 338-1784. L $3.75-$6.25, D $3.95-$9.00. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, D, V. Autumn brings thoughts of a bottle of good wine by a fireplace, and such thoughts should remind one of La Chaumiere. The center of this Georgetown country-inn style French restaurant is a freestanding stone fireplace. And the highlight of dining there is the wine list, wideranging and full of interesting choices, some at remarkably low prices. The menu lists daily specials (note the couscous on Wednesdays and the cassoulet on Thursdays) and a standing list from quiche to seafood casserole. The best dishes tend to be the homely fare such as liver, brains, and tripe or blood sausage if you are inclined towards them. Onion soup is a large step beyound the average, and salads are often the best of the menu. Given the reasonable prices, particularly for Georgetown, the restaurant is a good value, even when a particular dish or two is unexciting and service bogs down under the weight of popularity. La Fleur 3700 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 338-8753. L $3.25-$6.50, d $9.50-$13.50. L daily ex Sat. D daily. AE, D, MC, V. I keep hoping for more from La Fleur, and with its new menu announced to start this fall, maybe I will find it. But so far it remains a pretty face with not much behind it. It is, however, awfully pretty, pale and pink and white, soothing in its colors and set with blown-glass flowers enclosing floating candles. Its service is gracious, and its valet parking is a strong asset. But, except for a couple of unique Swiss appetizers -- puff pastry with morels and air-dried beef, which are unusual and delicious -- the food is at best ordinary. Earlier this year the pastries were glorious, but the pastry chef has left and the new one is good, but not up to the old standard. La Fleur bears another look after the new chef has become acclimated. La Fourchette 2429 18th St. NW. 332-3077. L $3.50-$8.75, D $3.50-$8.75, L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, D, MC, V. Among Washington's unsung assets in this rustic French restaurant, its walls covered with a mural of French heartiness, its kitcen staffed with obvious professionals. The service dawdles, but at this cas- ual restaurant that is to be expected. The printed menu lists standard hors d'oeuvres (including a very good rough plate), light entrees (with a light, buttery-crusted ham and cheese turnover) and salads (the nicoise could use some upgrading). But central are the daily specials. One of the few French restaurants that regularly serves pork La Fourchette prepares it particularly well, sometimes serves superb liver, and handles fish sensitively. Dishes tend to be robust, and the best desserts are alcohol-soaked crepes and marinated oranges. The reasonably priced wine list offers a good selection of half bottles. In all, your money goes far at La Fourchette. L'Alouette 2045 Wilson Blvd. Arlington. 525-1750. L $3.25-$7.95, D $6.50-$13.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, MC, V. With nearly a hundred French restuarants in competition in the Washington area. L'Alouette has two distinct drawing cards. Its service, often conducted by waitresses in black tie, is pleasant and formal without being stiff. And at most hours on most evenings a fixed-price dinner is available for about $10, including appetizer, salad, main course and dessert. The room is attractive, in the usual Northern Virginia style of painted barn siding. The food, a familiar list of fish veronique, meuniere and amandine, and meats from coq au vin to rack of lamb, is pretty good, sometimes excellent. Fish and meats tend to be overcooked and sauces lack depth, but there are happy surprises such as impressively creamy and pungent brains ravigote, or veal savoyard that is rich with mushroom puree, ham, cream and cheese over fine veal. If you order from the menu's bargains, L'Alouette can be a memorable value. La Miche 7905 Norfolk Ave. Bethesda. 986-0707. L $4.50-$6.50. D $8.75- $12. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. MC, V. Rough, pale wooden beams turn Bethesda office architecture into a vision of a farmhouse, with baskets hung from every rafter. On some walls are flowered cafe curtains, on other walls bucolic wallpaper. And amid this carefully ministered rusticity is a tinted-mirrored wall on which a bar window seems to float, apparently dispensing drinks from nowhere. Waitresses wear t-shirts with the restaurant's logo; their accents are french their manner effervescent, their delivery smooth and expert. Fitting with the small restaurant's casual style is its small menu -- poached trout with champagne sauce, rockfish grilled with herbs, veal scallops with cream and herbs, country-style duck, mustard-grilled Cornish hen, filet mignon with red-wine sauce, and a few daily specials. Appetizers are more adventurous, starting with oysters poached with orange butter. At La Miche, bread plays a prominent role -- the baquettes are the Bread Oven's excellent product.But brioche and croissants are also used as containers for wine-sauced chicken livers and scallops. The duck, confit de canard, is deliciously browned in its own fat. Grilled lobster has been perfectly timed and sauced with a soft cloud of white butter sauce. Well-prepared vegetables garnish the plates. To finish, besides very reasonably priced and good souffles, there is tarte tatin -- quite good -- and creme brulee -- quite dreadful. In all, a meal at La Miche is a treat; but the wine list does not match it. La Miche is the first French restaurant of distinction Bethesda has seen in recent memory, and it has the crowds to prove it. La Nicoise 1721 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 965-9300. D $10.50- $15. D only. Closed Sun. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. The one restaurant where you can spend $13 for a veal dish served by a waiter wearing a t-shirt, La Nicoise is enormously popular with tourists, and does present more raucous fun than any restaurant in its exorbitant price range. Predating the roller skating fad by 10 years. La Nicoise has always had waiters on wheels, showmen who speed up and skid to a stop at your table balancing a bottle of wine and half-a-dozen glasses. The food and service at La Nicoise may be hit-or-miss, but the place is entertaining, culminating in a raunchy show put on by the waiters late in the evening -- as tasteless as the fish you probably ate for dinner, but fun if you have the stomach for it. Actually, the food lately has been better than in previous years' visits. Veal with lemon is plain and good, and in general the food is more likely to be dull than bad. The problem is that the prices equal those at the top restaurants in town, so unless you consider the show worth paying for, you are not getting good value for your money. L'Auberge Chez Francois 332 Spring Vale Rd. Great Falls. 759-3800. D $12.50-$15.25. No L, D daily, closed Mon. AE, MC, V. On a balmy evening, a brief ride in the country to a homespun but tasteful inn with well-prepared seasonal food: such is the desire of hordes of Washingtonians. And such an evening is L'Auberge Chez Francois. The inn has an authentic country look, and the front table is set with pastries that make you glad you came. Aperitifs are particularly interesting, the likes of champagne with raspberry liqueur. The wine list has a satisfying range of Alsatians at fair prices. Start with a quiche that reminds, you how good that dish can be. Pates, too, are excellent, available as an assortment for two at a surcharge over the fixed price. The starring main course is salmon souffle, but there is a range from unusual (duck with apples, pears and cabbage) to standards (filet with bearnaise). While the food is consistently good, individual dishes are often less than memorable. It is the experience as a whole that gives such pleasure. Desserts are outstanding, from homey plum tart to sophisticated puff pastry and fruit creations. And prices are a rung below downtown French restaurant prices. The problem is that making reservations is so complicated -- phoning precisely two weeks ahead and confirming a day before, then often waiting while the previous seating lingers -- that expectations are unreasonably high. La Bagatelle 2000 K St. NW. 872-8677. L $6.95-$9.95, D $11.75-$14.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. One of the handful of top-priced and top-quality downtown French restaurants. La Bagatelle is distinct in its setting. It is pretty, fresh, as light-looking as a garden, decorated in green and white with trellises rather than the heavy gifts and velvets of most of its competitors. Otherwise, it is just as inconsistent as all but the top two tend to be, its service just as expert as the others, with the same lapses into arrogance and indifference for anonymous dinners. You can count on exquisite ingredients at Le Bagatelle, so you would do well to order lump crabmeat dishes and Belon oysters from Maine and fresh vegetables. Beyond that, you are taking chances. The asparagus soup may be a dream, the parfait of duck liver with hazelnuts full-flavored; then you will encounter a pretty but tasteless salmon pate or a bland house pate. Rockfish with sorrel might benefit from a beautifully balanced, airy cream; then the salmon with chervil tastes insipid. The best dishes lately have been robust ones: rabbit, and stuffed veal rolls in tomato sauce. The wine list in an impressive display, but it is very expensive, with no relief among the modest wines. But La Bagatelle is known for its happy endings; desserts are extravagantly varied and delicious, from the gateau St. Honore to the tarts to the cold souffle to the custards to the berries in sabayon or chantilly cream. If Le Bagatelle would stop acting like No. 1, it would have a fighting chance to be No. 1. Le Gaulois 2133 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 466-3232. L, D $1.95-$12.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, MC, V. At any price, Le Gaulois would be one of the most consistently interesting and satisfying French restaurants in town. At its price, however, it is an extraordinary value. It is also one of the most crowded, noisy environments in which to eat such refinded cooking. Fortunately, as the restaurant has matured, a patina and a few more knicknacks have added a touch of character to the Colonial-tearoom look of Le Gaulois. Wine boxes stack up to serve as a reception disk. Waitresses, frazzled as they may get with the ever-present crowds, work at being solicitous and serving energetically. And the menu expands with new ingredients and new ideas. Look to the list of daily specials. A dozen appetizers, a dozen hot main dishes, cold salads like marinated beef or salmon with green mayonnaise. They are only preludes to exceedingly good fruit tarts and custards. Duck may be sauced with pineaple, bananas and kiwis, lamb with creamy fresh tarrazon sauce. Along more familiar lines are blanquette de veau, braised beef tongue; seafoods such as scallops marseillaise or lobster grilled with white butter sauce. Even a simple freshfruit salad will include extravagances such as raspberries. There is good reason for Le Gaulois having a fiercely loyal following and competition for reservations. Le Lion d'Or At 18th and M Sts. NW. 296-7972. L $4.50- $14, D $9.50- $17. L daily ex Sat, D daily, Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Le Lion d'Or has been king among Washington's French restaurants for some years now. And the food only seems to get better. The daily specials recited by the captain are likely to be very special indeed, whether scallop mousse wrapped in lettuce leaves, hot rabbit pate, fresh shrimp in an airy basil sauce, or lamb permeated with the aroma of fennel bulbs. When chef Jean-Pierre Goyenvalle wraps a fish -- whether in puff pastry or in lettuce -- the result is for the greater glory of the fish rather than for visual impressiveness. His game dishes taste worthy of a hunt. His orange souffle has no local peer, and his orange tart is a seesaw of sweetness and bitterness that is delightful.His wine list is constantly stretched to include worthwhile new finds from California as well as from France. Few people dispute the excellence of the food. But lately the number of complaints about the service has accelerated. Creeping arrogance and inconsiderate haste are more frequent. My captain incorrectly described two specials, and he knew I was a restaurant critic. Also, one must be warned that specials such as flown-from-France seafoods or foie gras and truffle inventions can cost far more than the menu average might indicate. So bills can climb unexpectedly unless you ask a question or two. Le Lion d'Or has plenty of laurels to rest on, but I hope the rests are brief. Le Pavillon 1820 K St. NW. 833-3846. L $7.25- $12, D $12.50-$18.75. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, CB, MC, V. This year's most celebrated New Chef in Town is Yannick Cam, whose version of nouvelle cuisine has raised Le Pavillon to the top layer of French restaurants here. Weekly and monthly special dinners introduce diners to a range of courses and new dishes, always as beautiful as a Japanese brush painting, and often as exquisite to the palate. Complaints are more likely to be concerned with the small portions than with the quality of their execution. The surroundings look like a mail-order catalogue version of a French restaurant, but elaborate flower arrangements and new china and glassware help. But the food is the crucial point. The airiest fish mousses, perfect matchsticks of crisp vegetables precision-scattered, sauces subtle in texture and taste. original and unusual desserts capped by filmy tile cookies. Such meals require abundant leisure and money, but few tables give such pleasure. Le Provencal 1234 20th St. NW. 223-2420. L $5.50-$8.95, D $9.95-$12.95. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. The two-level dining room of Le Provencal is well-dressed. Its walls and tablecloths are pink, its style is highly decorative, its waiters formally dressed. And for all its visual glamor, its prices are slightly less than the grand French restaurants of the city. Its cuisine is also a cut below the best, but a few dishes stand above the crowd. Lunchtime is a good time to try Le Provencal, when a basket of garlic bread starts the meal and the plats du jour might include an especially good buy like cold lobster parisienne. Plats du jour are generally the best choices, and fish dishes the most consistent of those. Pates, galantines and mousses show the kitchen's talent to advantage. Scallops are likely to be beautifully cooked. But blanquette de veau and even the restaurant's famed bouillabaisse can be timid and dull. Le Provencal imports some interesting wines from Provence, better buys than the bulk of the wine list. And the fruit tarts are better made than most. The restaurant has remained a Washington fixture for a long time, through it all maintaining an extremely attractive and continually fresh-looking dining room and a fairly good kitchen to back it up. Given the difficulty of getting reservations at Washington's most celebrated restaurants, this is a good one to remember when a formal French dinner is what the situation demands. L'Escargot 3309 Connecticut Ave. NW. 966-7510. L $3.95-$5.25, D $6.50-$9.60.Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. No-nonsense French is the theme of L'Escargot. The room is ethnic; there is no attempt at glamor. The waitnesses are fast and efficient with no lingering at the table. The setting fits the simple, moderately-priced menu. So L'Escargot is a pleasant, unintimidating French restaurant. Whether it is a good French restaurant depends on your luck. Its onion soup is delicious -- dark, rich and wafting meaty aroma. But a consomme served that same day was weak and tepid. Best dishes are probably the heavy, long-cooking dishes of winter. Beef bourguignon has depth in its sauce. But fish have been found to be overcooked and ineptly seasoned. Lamb chops have been fatty and overcooked, their sauce choron well made but served in a tiny paper cup that had to be squeezed over the meat to try to extricate enough. Vegetables, too, vary from delicious potatoes au gratin to shriveled, burned baby corrots. For dessert, a custard-filled rum cake (no alcoholic threat even to a child) is homestyle and satisfying. For a long time L'Escargot was about the only decent moderately priced French restaurant in town. Now it has much competition and meets it only erratically. Los Asturianos 506 8th St. SE. 546-5050. L $1.95-$6.75, D $5.75-$10.95. L daily ex Sat. D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. While Los Asturianos might struggle if it were in proximity with the Spanish restaurants downtown and in Georgetown, its cuisine is a welcome change on Capitol Hill.The dining room, up two short flights of stairs, is surrounded by windows on three sides. A skylight lets in even more light. It is a pretty perch. The dining room is carpeted in quiet red geometric figures, the waxed blond wood tables left bare to match the modern wood chairs. Tables are well-spaced. The walls are ware, rough fabrics. Spain is known for its tapas, or appetizers, and Los Asturianos likewise shows to best advantage in its beginnings. Mussels are served cold in a creamy vinaigrette. Fried squid is an equally rewarding choice. Shrimp in garlic butter is worth trying as the beginning of a meal that will undoubtedly be permeated with garlic. Here is a restaurant that attends well to its soups. The paella is also a pleasure, but other seafood dishes do not fulfill their promise. Main dishes, by and large, are less rewarding on the plate than they read on the menu. A choice of interesting restaurants is a recent phenomenon on Capitol Hill. Thus, while Los Asturianos is not vital news to the city as a whole, it enriches the dining possibilities of its neighborhood. Malabar 4934 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 363-8900. L $3.25-$4.95, D $5.95-$9.50. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Malabar has become one of the most treasured neighbors of upper Wisconsin Avenue, for it is a quiet, unaffected Indian restaurant with very good food for the price. Not at all fancy, it is modestly decorated with Indian prints and pierced metal lanterns. And the a la carte menu allows you to put together a light meal or a banquet. Start with chicken tikka, an appetizer of two drumsticks coated with spices and grilled to a crusty finish. You could make a meal of appetizers -- kebabs, samosas, pakoras, and masala dosa (though it needs doctoring with chutneys to spark it). Curries are variable, but at last visit the biryani was delectable, like eating perfumed rice tossed with cubes of spiced meat. Finish lightly with the restaurant's homemade coconut ice cream made with freshly grated coconut. Mamma Desta 4840 Georgia Ave. NW. 882-2955. L, D $3.50-$4.75. Open daily. No credit cards. The first of Washington's Ethiopian restaurants, Mamma Desta wears its maturity well. The walls are now hung with African artifacts and paintings. Ethiopian music plays faintly. Lest you think Mamma Desta is turning hopelessly chic, however, the enormous stainless steel refrigerator still sits prominently in the dining room. Mamma Desta has a dozen choices of main dishes (no desserts or appetizers at all) that break down into dorro (chicken and boiled egg), yebeg (lamb) or tibs (diced beef), either as alitchas (spiced stews) or watts (hot spiced stews) plus kitfo (very spicy chopped raw beef). Dishes are brought in metal bowls for you to spoon onto big, pale pancakes made from fermented batter. You use them to wrap up bits of the stews to eat with your hands. Portions are small, but the pancakes are filling. It is zesty food, spiced simply and highly peppered, and fun to eat. Among the several Ethiopian restaurants, Mamma Desta stands out for the quality of its pancakes and its honey wine called teg. It is not on the menu, but if you look around you will notice people drinking it directly from small bulbous glass jugs. It is like drinking flowers. And it is reason enough to try Mamma Desta. The Man in the Green Hat 301 Massachusetts Ave. NE. 546-5900. L $2.95-$5.95, D $3.50-$9.95. L daily, D daily ex Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. A bright and handsome California-style cafe with early promise, the Man in the Green Hat has slipped into a mid-life crisis, serving sludge-thick cream soup and tired vegetables in its salads, overbreading its crab cakes and preesenting baskets of homemade bread at 85 cents that were very good -- yesterday. Too bad. The service encourages you to love the place. The appointments are tasteful and the bar lively. Homemade pastries, particularly the walnut pie, are outstanding. A choice of cheese and fruit as a snack is an imaginative idea, but the cheese tray looks a mess and the apples are darkening throughout the day. Sandwiches are large, but some are swamped in gluey sauces. Green Hat potatoes are baked, spiced, cheesed and fried delicious except for the occasional overaged potato. Stay tuned next year to see if the Man pulls out of the skids. Marshall's West End 2525 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 659-6886. L $3.25-$4.50, D $5.25-$8.75. Open daily. AE, MC, V. As foggy Bottom has increasingly become a neighborhood it has increasingly needed a neeighborhood hangout, and Marshall's fills the need. You can have a hamburger at the bar (thick and crusty, but overcooked unless you beg for mercy). Or you can order a full meal at tables in the rear, a short Italian menu of good pastas and variable chicken and veal dishes. For a late, light supper around the bar, a half order of green-and-white noodles with sausage, ham and peas could end the evening happily. A long, lingering Sunday brunch is becoming a neighborhood habit. Martin's Tavern 1264 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 333-7370. L,D $2.75-$9.50. Open daily. No creedit cards. Martin's looks like the good old days, with its time-worn straight-backed wooden booths, its waiters in green jackets and its tough-but-kind-looking, really good bartenders. It is a warm and endearing tavern that serves Welsh rarebit and western omelets, so old-fashioned that it accepts no checks or credit cards. What we forget about the good old days is overcooked fish and canned corn-beef hash, passable food at low prices. This, too is martin's Tavern, a comfortable escape from the trendy Georgetown restaurant scene. Maxime 5300 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 244-7666. L $2.95-$6.25, D $4.50-$8.55. Open daily. MC, V. Maxime has an outdoor cafe' look within its shopping-center interior, an airy, tile-decorated long room that looks into the Friendship Heights street scene. Part cafe' and part full restuarant, it lists on its menu quiches croques, eggs Florentime, salads and a dozen substanial main courses such as braised duck with peas, Dover sole and beef stroganoff, half of them changing daily. Among appetizers, the onion soup is unusually good, but there aree several others that are not. Sauteed fish, veal and liver are the most delicious of the main dishes; the more elaborate ones are less likely to meet expectations. Salads are impressive, and light supper dishes such as quiches are generally satisfying. The culinary focus at Maxime is dessert. At some point you are likely to be drawn to the pastry case to view the assortment; trust your eyes, for the fruit tarts are as luscious as they look. Pay attention also to the unique walnut cake. For dessert, Maxime is worth an excursion. As a full-service French restuarant, its value lies primary in its geography, for there is little else of its quality near Friendship Heights shopping and movie theaters. But in the Washington area one need not travel far for a nice little moderately priced French restaurant with capabilities more moderate than its prices. McGuire's 1330 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 544-5411. L $2.95-$3.25, D $2.95-$5.75. L, D daily, closeed Sat, Sun. AE. McGuire's would be the typical Irish bar except that it is not owned by anybody named McGuire, and the floor is carpeted. Otherwise, it is lined with dark wood and intimate booths and has the regulation bar with television set and blackboard with daily specials (corned beef and cabbage appear regularly, of course). Harp is on tap. And the place fills with the mix of people that makes Capitol Hill such a lively neighborhood. The food at McGuire's is about what you would expect from a bar: big burgers, reubens, clubs, crab cakes and salads. Some of it is ordinary, occasionally it sinks lower, as in the case of heavy frozen fried clams. But the french fries -- real, old fashioned, freshly cut and fried French fries -- show that somebody cares. Mikado 4707 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 244-1740. L $3.60-$6.50, D $6- $12. L,D daily, closed Mon. No creedit cards. Each of Washington's Japanese restaurants has its special advantages. The first advantage to note about Mikado is its location on upper Wisconsin Avenue. Neighboring families and uptown moviegoers are drawn to it, as well as the army of faithful who have either discovered Japanese food there or satisfied post-Japan yearnings. The dining room is close and hectic, and the waitresses in kimonos reflect that in their occasional abruptness. One of the prices the public pays for Mikado's popularity is inflexibility; you cannot make reservations the day before, only on the same day. You cannot order suki-nabe a la carte, but only as a full dinner (and it is one of the best dishes on the menu). Prices are high, particularly considering the small servings and some of the inexpensive ingredients such as rice, noodles or greens that are the bulk of many dishes.Still the food at Mikado tends to be delicate but piquant, much of it delicious. Appetizers include the most unfamiliar tastes and textures -- nameko mushrooms with goey grated radish, squid with cod roe and the like -- but yakitori, skewered chicken bits, are familiar and delightful. Sushi are better at Sakura Palace or Samurai Sushiko, but Mikado's tempura is impeccable, light and well-browned and succulent. Teriyaki, whether beef or chicken, is nicely marinated and grilled, and the broiled eel, though at a breathtaking price for a small dish, is luscious. While the green salad looks more American than Japanese, it is dressed with an excellent soy-lemon dressing. The menu lists sukiyaki and shabushabu dinners for two, but a single person can try the suki-nabe, and certainly should. Though Mikado is not always as generous in its portions, prices or service as it could be, it is authenic in its cuisine, a good reestuarant in any language. Montpelier Room In the Madison Hotel. 15th and M Sts. 862-1600. L $6.50- $20, D $13.75-$21.25, L daily ex Sat. D daily, closed Sun. AE, CB, MC, V. If price is no object, the Montpelier Room serves well as a personal lunch club. The dining room is a setting of grandeur, royal blue and gold everywhere, the tables set with luxurious china and silver ornaments and not one but two long-stemmed roses in each bud vase. Service is well-oiled with an eye on your needs from a discreet distance. All is hushed. Everything is polished. The menu is a parade of costly ingredients and traditional continental dishes with something for everyone and no offense to any sensibilities. Nor are there surpises, adventures; this is what is known as hotel fare. It can be very good; on occasion it is superb. Perfectly fresh sea trout grilled to its juiciest, with a crusty, buttery surface, is accompanied by garlicky fresh green beans and parsley potatoes.Crab au gratin is giant pearls of crab in a soft, buttery cream with just enough pimiento. But given the fact that the best of the food is plain food, the prices are outlandish.The wine list is tantalizing in its depth, but the prices spoil one's appetite. At dessert time, trays are wheeled to the table, everything expertly made and beautiful. Coffee is served and refilled from your china pot. Even iced tea is served in a china pot for refills. Nice touches. But at the price it costs, one is paying for individuality as well as comfort, and at the Montpelier you get only comfort, though certainly enough of that. Nora's 2132 Florida Ave. NW. 462-5143. L $3.50-$4.75, D $5.50-$8.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. No credit cards. Nora's is more than a restaurant; it is a culinary statement of radical chic and a neighborhood pub for a neighborhood that includes major media offices. Vegetables are fresh and locally grown when available. Meats are raised without additives. Farm-fresh eggs, Vermont cheddar, and pure apple cider are served. It is hard not to like a restaurant that goes to such trouble for your health and welfare. Furthermore, Nora's makes its own mayonnaise, its soups from scratch, and all the breads for its sandwiches (but not the dinner rolls). Sundays it makes it own bagels. The main dining room, a few steps upstairs, is as fresh-looking as a home-grown tomato, decorated with flowered prints and daisies in cream bottles, skylights and enlarged photographs of fruits and vegetables. In the rear is one of the best protected outdoor cafes in Washington. The food, however, too often looks better than it tastes.Success and failure play leapfrog in the kitchen. Main dishes tend to be simple, with Oriental influences here and there. Fish, roast chicken, homemade noodles, and vegetable dishes are most likely winners, and desserts rarely disappoint. Beverages are an asset, from the thoughtful wine list to the fresh orange juice. With its flaws, Nora's is a special place, a restaurant with a distinct personality, that goes to the trouble to experiment and seems to learn from its mistakes. Any restaurant that makes its own bagels is on the right track. O'Brien's Pit Barbecue 1314 Gude Dr. Rockville. 340-8596. L, D $2.30-$5.60. Open daily. No credit cards. O'Brien's has combined the most American of food, style and service in its pit barbecue restaurant. It is a cafeteria. It is a cowboy-untramodern-plastic setting. And it serves some of the best ribs and chili you'll find north of the Virginia statehouse. First, O'Brien's meats taste of smoke straight through, are tender without being dry and are served in big portions. Second, the sauce, which you ladle on yourself, is a wonderful deep brown essence of tartness and savoriness that is hot but not jarring. It is good enough to sop up the dregs with your Texas toast. You can get barbecued chicken, beef, pork or ribs, but the ribs are the star. You can also get outrageously good chili, plenty hot and not too thick, with the bite left in the beans. You help yourself to fine potato salad heavy on the pickle relish, crisp cole slaw that is happily not sweetened, and beans that also deserve compliments for their lack of sugar. All of this is to be washed down with beer in a big frosty mug that is unexpectedly but appropriately a perfect plastic copy of the real thing. O'Donnell's 1221 E St. NW. 737-2101. 8301 Wisconsin Ave. Bethesda. 656-6200. L $3.50-$10.00, D $5.50-$13.00. Open daily. AE, CB, CC, D, MC, V. This collection of dining rooms is vast, and varied from brightly nautical to undersea-dim. And crowds of families wait on weekends to fill the tables. It must not be the quality of the seafood that attracts them, but the price. The choices are standard, fried and broiled fish and seafood, and you should ask the server what is freah and what is frozen. The food is standard American fish cookery, usually overcooked and overseasoned with paprika and pimiento for color. Several dishes are too sweet, like the cocktail sauce or the frosted rum buns that Washington seafood restaurants inexplicably consider traditional to serve with the meal. The safest order is plain broiled fish -- hold the paprika. Seafood Norfolk style is all right, though it has an unexpected smoky taste. Desserts are homemade, with rum chiffon pie the least gluey-sweet. In all, it is middling food at middling prices, with children's meals such a bargain that families come in droves. Old Angler's Inn 10801 MacArthur Blvd. Potomac. 365-2425. L $3.50- $9, D $8.50- $14. L Sat, Sun only, D daily, closed Mon. AE, CB, D, MC, V. In Washington novels, the Sans Souci is routinely the setting for potitical machinations. But for romantic ones the Old Angler's Inn is a typical fictional site. Hikers and bikers stop at the Inn during their journeys on the C & O Canal. In the rear is a soft drink and snack bar; the inn itself is formal and oriented towards serving complete meals. The drive from the city is a quick trip into seclusion. The century-old inn is set in the woods, dim and quiet. You can drink and dine outdoors during benign weather, or have a drink in the downstairs lounge -- deeply cushioned and candlelit -- until your order is ready for you in the upstairs dining room. The only access is a very narrow winding staircase, and the room is hung with drooping fishnet; one does not go to Old Angler's for elaborate appointments. And the menu is small and standard. The best dishes are creamy, unadulterated crab imperial made of impressive backfin crab, or the roasts for two -- chateaubriand and rack of lamb, which are well trimmed and impeccably cooked, served with several fresh vegetables and tastefully sauced. The kitchen attempts pates and soups and Bavarian creams, but simpler foods are most reliable. Fresh fish are on the menu in season, and they are fresh indeed, though the kitchen should be wary of overcooking. The wine list features an interesting choice of California wines, particularly whites. Old Europe 2434 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 333-7600. L $2.75-$5.85, D $5-$11.50. Open daily, AE, CB, D, MC, V. Old Europe practically needs its own tourist bureau to keep the public informed of its festivals. There is the asparagus festival and Berliner Weissbier time, the game festival and the May wine festival. There is always something to celebrate, and that gives you an idea of what fun the restaurant can be. It looks accurately Middle European, its walls covered with ornately framed old-fashioned paintings. Evenings, there is piano music. Waitresses are cheerful, amusing and terribly efficient. And, as one expects in a German restaurant, the food is heavy and filling, and would be so even were it not served in such huge portions. Two of the greatest pleasures at Old Europe are alcoholic. German beers are, of course, plentiful. And the wine list indulges all one's whims for Rhines and Mosels in abundance, with fair prices and an uncommonly good choice of half bottles. Food, of course, is central; choose dishes that are from the peasant rather than the urban repertoire. To start, the wurstslat or a soup (especially cold fruit soup is season) are well-made. Continue to pigs' knuckles or wursts rather than veal dishes, which taste more like peasant food than they are meant to. Dumplings, sauerkraut and red cabbage are good enough to patch the disappointment. For dessert, concentrate on cheesecake, which the kitchen does superbly, far better than the apple strudel or apple pie. Be sure to take advantage of the festivals' special dishes. Omar Khayyam 112 N. Saint Asaph St. Alexandria. 548-2255. L $3.25-$4.95, D $6.25-$9.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Behind a modest entrance, Omar Khayyam stretches up three floors edged in ornate wood, etched with Persian curlicues, and focuses on an elaborate bar area where a three-piece band plays and a belly dancer undulates. The restaurant looks simultaneously modern and traditional, ornate and simple. The food is Persian, starting with washboard-shaped slabs of homemade bread. Eggplant with yogurt, mint and garlic makes a good introduction to the exotic combinations to come. Stuffed grape leaves are sweet and lemony and filled with split-pea puree. Despite the long list of main dishes, they break into easy categories: skewered meats marinated inyogurt and subtle herbs, then charcoal broiled so that they are smoky and crusty. Another form of charcoaled meat is lamb chops, seared and seasoned with cumin and sumac, served with plain or dilled rice with lima beans. Two other main dishes need to be mentioned. Khoresht fesejon is boned chicken in a fascinating sauce of pomergranate juice and nuts. Shirin polo, grilled chicken in a desser-sweet orange marmalade sauce, is less likable. The food emits tantalizing perfumes, unexpected and delicous seasoning combinations. Desserts are good but less exotic cream cakes or indifferent baklava. But in all, the food, entertainment and service combine in a grand show. Omega 1858 Columbia Rd. NW. 462-1732. L, D $3.50-$6.50. Closed Mon. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Omega is a tradition in Washington. It is the longest-running Cuban restaurant bargain in the city. The setting is pure nonentity, with formica tables on bare bloors and a few lonely pictures on the walls. The service is just as spare, but generally rapid, for this is a restaurant that copes with crowds. There is no sparing on the food. Fried squid as an appetizer -- in a fragile haze of a crust -- could serve as a main course. The real main courses are enough to feed a table, particularly with the platter of rice and bowl of black beans. The menu includes the standards: paella, ropa vieja, masitas de purerco, lomo saltado, rabbit and cuttlefish and cod, as well as very good golden soup-stews known as asopaos. The menu is in both Spanish and English, so that families waiting in line or for their dinners can pass the time with a language lesson. With all of the Adams-Mor-gan neighborhood's new restaurants, omega retains its legendary attraction. Oriental Tavern 301 S. Washington St. Falls Church. 534-3332. L $1.99-$4.50, D $2.50-$4.50. No credit cards. The main decorative features at the Oriental Tavern are several beautiful children for whom this six-table luncheonette is a second home. But from the tiny kitchen in which several generations of a Vietnamese family cook on home-style stoves, come some fascinating, obscure dishes. Rice paste spread with dried shrimp and steamed, crab noodle soup afloat with hot pepper oil and vinegar are among the 50 dishes of Vietnamese and Chinese-style Viet-namese origin. The rock-bottom setting is reflected in the prices, but the food is attractively served in what looks like the family porcelain. It is a friendly setting, a good place to learn the intricacies of Vietnamese cuisine. Paru's Indian Vegetarian Restaurant 2010 S St. NW. 483-5133. L $1.50-$5.50, D $1.90-$5.50. Open daily.No credit cards. You may have wondered how much one can do with rice and lentils. At Paru's you can find out. They become big pancakes and small pancakes as well as pastes and curries. This storefront eating place has only a few tables and only disposable tableware. You serve yourself from the counter. But for a pittance you can put together a feast of masala dosa (fragile pancakes rolled as long as baseball bats and filled with potato curry), super pancakes (crunchy discs flavored with onions), pilaf perfumed with cardamom and clove or all kinds of mix-and-match combinations. Wash them down with fresh-tasting mango juice or tart, yogurt-based lassi. It would be hard to spend more than $5 or to leave less than full. Peking Gourmet Inn 6029 leesburg Pike. Falls Church. 671-80889 L $2.50-$3.25, D $4.25-$6.95. Open daily. MC, V. Peking duck is the highlight, as one can guess from the name of this small, crowded Dhinese restaurant. You can order a whole or a half with no advance notice. The duck is rubbed with honey and hung to cook in a smoke oven, then rolled to your table on a cart and carved to your liking -- with or without the fat removed, as you wish. Good job. The duck hot-and sour soup is a successful offshoot of the process. The menu also includes a full range of Chinese dishes, but the duck dishes and fried dumplings are the ones clearly above average. Also above average is the service -- suave, help-ful -- which reinforced the pleasure of a moderately priced dinner. Pellicano 100 King St. Alexandria. 549-8440. L $4.25-$7.25, D $6.75-$11.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. In moving upstairs this year, Pellicano has lost some of its major assets. What was a lovely restaurant is now a bit awkward. It has every obvious symbol of elegance -- contemporary crystal chandeliers and sconces, draperies, bouquets of silk flowers, a mural, gilded wallpaper, antiqued mirrors. But the tables are too close and the chairs too low. Restraint is missing. The menu is northern Italian and quite small, concentrating on veal dishes with a few fish and meats and pasta for relief. Pastas and veal dishes are the best of the lot, particularly veal Landini smothered in a rich sauce of meat glaze and cream with cheese and prosciutto, with asparagus (only at its best, of course, in asparagus season). Fish is less felicitous, being overcooked and blandly seasoned. The seafood hors d'oeuvres, particularly, are priced well above their value. Pellicano comes within a stone's throw of being a very good Italian restaurant, but needs slight adjustments in the appointments, a pinch more effort in the kitchen and conssiderably more willingness in the dining room to avoid snappishness. At the price, the restaurant can afford the effort. Pine and Bamboo 5541 Nicholson Lane. Rockville. 468-0011. L $2.15- $3, D $3.25-$11.95. Open daily. MC, V. Like many Chinese restaurants these days, Pine and Bamboo has a long list of seafood dishes. Its beef and pork dishes cover the familiar Mandarin range, from every pepper beef to more complex steamed pork with winter vegetables. It has three kinds of duck, lamb, chicken, vegetables and noodles. Almost a quarter of the main dishes follow the current fad for Szechuan fire, with only moderate doses of pepper. In general the menu lists what you would expect in a reasonably ambitious Chinese restaurant, with a couple of order-in-advance specialties and some unusual fried pastries for dessert. And except when the restaurant is very crowded, Pine and Bamboo serves generously and cheerfully, cooks its food carefully and seasons it skillfully. The setting is elaborate, from a giant snaking canopy outside to tall red leather banquettes and embossed wallpaper. The cuisine wavers a bit on its foundations, but the setting is grand and the kitchen more often does right than wrong. The Pines of Rome 4709 Hampden Lane. Bethesda. 657-8775. L, D $4- $20. Closed Mon. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Pizza and ravioli may have become American dishes, but not at The Pines of Rome, a trattoria that could be just as comfortable in Rome as in Bethesda. The pizza is a concoction of subtly complementary ingredients rather than a smear of tomato paste with dough to hold it together. The ravioli are delicate and meaty, just accented with tomato. The appetizers lean towards vegetables with good oils in the frying (zucchini) or in the saucing (beans). The waiter will rattle off a list of daily specials in passing, and when you grab him to order, choose from one of those, particularly roast veal or fresh fish. As uncaring the decor and as abrupt the service, as crowded and cluttered the evening, the Pines or Rome remains intensely popular because the food has an Italian soul. That means an understanding of the use of lemon, tomatoes, garlic, oregano, olive oil, an obsession with the quality of fish and veal, and simple cooking that shows restraint as the ultimate sophistication. President Adams In the Hay-Adams Hotel. 800 16th St. NW. 638-2260. L $4.25- $15, D $8.50- $16. OPEND DAILY. AE, CB, D, MC, V. If they would let you bring your lunch, the Hay-Adams would be a wonderful place to eat. It has been refurbished grandly with beautiful velvety wood paneling, heavily textured gold tablecloths, flowers and paintings and every variety of ornate decorative expression. In contrast, the menu is filled with dull goods, standard fare. And the food sinks even below dullness. At $6.50, a salade nicoise offers no potatoes, no eggs, no taste. Cold poached salmon tastes as dead as fish ever gets. A mixed grill is but a plate piled high with stiff French fries and water-logged green beans, garnished with a tough dry steaklet, thin dry lamb chops alternating with greasy sausage and greasy liver. The finale is pastries bought from Watergate. And a strong impression that the beautiful room is not being used to anyone's best advantage. The Prime Rib 2020 K St. NW. 466-8811. L $7.50-$9.95, D $10- $16. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, D, MC, V. Bear in mind that The Prime Rib is a specialty restaurant; when you forget that, your dinner is in trouble. It is Washington's most glamorous setting for plain old steak and roast beef, with gold-bordered black walls and a pianist playing a very grand piano. The beef is fine: roast beef is thick, tender and juicy; steak is crusty and as ordered. Shredded fresh horseradish on the side is a thoughtful touch. But none of the above can withstand the brusque, indifferent service and the insipid but overpriced appetizers. Venture, if you will, into crisped potato skins for a side dish and creamy cheese-cake for dessert. And investigate the in-depth list of American red wines. But beef and gilt are what warrant The Prime Rib's hefty prices. Rive Gauche 3200 M St. NW. 333-6440 L $8.50-$9.50, D $10.00-$15.00. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. One unchanging attribute of the Rive Gauche is its beauty. Tufted banquettes in deep red, chandeliers and silk flower arrangements vying for magnificence, and a duck press (reportedly only used once, many years ago) signal opulence that no restaurant in town surpasses. The dining room staff is a black-tie cadre of experienced troops. The menu is a recitation of the traditional elegant edibles -- foie gras, quenelles, Salmon can be meltingly soft, gentled by a just-opaque wine butter sauce with fresh chives. Scallops can be satiny, steamed with julinned vegetables. Sherbets, made in the house, are as fine as a new gathering of snowflakes. But there is also the possibility of a stiffened turbot fillet of a lumpy mattress of a vegetable puree, or a cream sauce severely salted with disregard for its nuances. An extravagant appetizer of baby green bean salad with fresh foie gras at $13.50 was pallid in the color of the beans, sloppily cut and acidic in their saucing. The wine list is creditable, as overpriced as most of the downtown restaurants, but the service is knowledgeable. The Rive Gauche can be the most agreeable of restaurants, when it extends its full effort. Romeno and Juliet 2020 K St. NW. 296-7112. L $5.75-$9.25, D $7.95-$14.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, D, MC, V. Were Romeo and Juliet a neighborhood Italian restaurant, it would be an extraordinary find. The tomato sauces are remarkably fresh and light. The pastas are fragile and skillfully made. But Romeo and Juliet is a very expensive and presumptuous downtown Italian restaurant that muddies its menu with semi-French dishes that can be dull or terrible. Trout stuffed with crab was neither fresh enought nor stuffed with anything one could readily recognize. Sauteed vegetables leached their juices into the veal sauce on the plate. And the service is more haughty and abrupt than dignified. The dining room is spacious and comfortable, nicely decorated. But at the price, the food and service are a poor risk. Round Table 4859 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 362-1250. L $2.25-$8.25, D $2.50-$8.25. Open daily. AE, MC, NAC, V. In the middle to Tenleytown's new crop of ethnic restaurants and cafes is the old neighborhood standby, the Round Table. Despite a few medieval touches, it is a no-frills sort of dining room, serving food most notable for its low prices.Everday stuff it is, with Greek and American dishes and a nice choice of what is in season -- shad and shad roe, for instance. Service is efficient, cooking stodgy, safe. Best choices are those that least challenge the kitche, perhaps roast lamb or broiled fish. Being in walking distance from so many movie theaters, it is handy for a pre-show Greek salad, a souvalaki sandwich, or a full dinner that will leave you enough money for your tickets. Sakura Palace 7926 Georgia Ave. Silver Spring. 587-7070. L $3.50-$8.50, D $11- $18. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily, closed Mon. AE, MC, V. Sakura is more than 20 years old and feeling fit. Through its years it seems to grow continually more Japanese. First came its wide assortment of Japanese cooking modes -- tempura, teriyaki, sukiyaki nabe mono, donburi -- served Western style or with diners kneeling shoeless at low tables. Several years ago a sushi bar was built, the production adding a show to those eating at the bar and adding new dimensions to the menu with a wide variety of sushi, sashimi and maki zushi (sushi folled in seaweed). Now another touch has been added, Japanese television at the sushi bar, using imported videotapes. Waitresses wear kimonos and serve with grace, through communicating is not always easy. The menu is long and complicated, with wildly varying prices that make ordering a challenge. A large portion of delicate bean cake to dip is savory soy-radish sauce costs less than $2, but broccoli tempura consisting of four pieces of broccoli costs nearly $3. And the assorted vegetable tempura was even more overpiced. No matter, the tempura is too greasy anyway. Order teriyaki; the charcoal-grilled pork is juicy and savory, and the rolled, stuffed beef negimaki is a lush combination of rare meat, scallions and seasonings. Then there is an interesting range of broth-cooked dishes such as shabu shabu and yosenable. The success of the sukiyaki depends on whether the waitress has time to attend to it. Service at the shushi bar bogs down, too, when the restaurant is busy. Order several appetizers and expect the need patience. Samurai Sushiko 2309 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 333-4187. L $2.50-$4.50, D $3- $11. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily, closed Mon. No credit cards. It is like eating in the middle of a Japanese brush painting, this delicate, precise little dining room. One half is sushi bar, where you can sit and watch the chef slicing and shaping raw fish and rice into edible jewels. The other wall is a row of booths cushioned with geometric prints.The menus are covered in silk, handwritten on rice paper. Waitresses wear kimonos and serve with a bow. The menu is short, but still manages to be confusing because of the array of sushi. The uninitiated should try an assortment, then try more of their favorites. Try also the dumplings, supple noodles filled with a tangy, peppery ground meat. The tempura needs a crisper surface, maybe because it is undercooked. Japanese beer or sake complete a meal. If you don't watch your sushi consumption, a meal can add up to an alarming price, but otherwise Samurai Sushi is a delightful blend of good taste for every sense. Sans Souci 726 17th St. NW.298-7424. L $5.50-$13.50, D $11.50- $22. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Sans Souci has long had two major assets: an exceedingly handsome dining room in the gilt-and-velvet style, and the reputation of being a public club for the mighty. Those have overshadowed the major flaw: undistinguished cuisine at excessive prices. Staff changes this year have shaken the image of the San Souci as a celebrities' gathering place, but at the same time the service has become more democratic and the menu and wine list have improved. As for the cooking, judgement remains suspended. Pates and seafood terrines have swung from intriguing to dull, though the liver pate has been consistently suave. While the kitchen has discovered fresh vegetables, the main courses have satisfied rather than excelled. Greatest strides have been made in desserts; the house now makes its own sherbets and tiny fruit tarts, which are the best of the tempting display. While Sans Souci is no longer resting on its old reputation, is obviously attempting to pull itself up to the highest rung of French restaurants, it is by no means there yet. Serbian Crown 4529 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 966-6787. D $8.95-$13.95. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Caviar and vodka are hardly the bulk of the Serbian Crown's Russian-Yugoslav-French menu, but you can, if so inclined, sample four kinds of caviar and many more kinds of vodka, including strawberry or pepper vodkas. Even without them, though, dinner is gala. Gypsy violinists serenade your table. The two rooms look vividly East European. Service is formal and smooth. The menu is full of excitement, from homely stuffed cabbage and borscht Moscow-style to salmon-stuffed and dill-spiked kulebiaka for two. Among the daily specials are likely to be duck with sauerkraut, or maybe a thick veal chop smothered in mushrooms, cheese and cream. If you can't find someone to share the glamorous kulebiaka, you can sometimes find sole Vladimir, also pastry-wrapped with ribboned with salmon. Those elaborate dishes are made with care, from the crust to the sauce. And standards such as rack of lamb are managed equally well. Down-to-earth kebabs are spicy and very good. You can also find beef stroganoff, chicken Kiev and often roast suckling pig. Start with zakuska, a colorful appetizer platter that demonstrates the elegance of the house pate and the quality of the smoked salmon, as well as the marinated vegetable salads. Unless you choose caviar (with or without buckwheat blini), it beats all else. Main dishes are sumptuous, bracketed with good fresh vegetables. The wine list affords an opportunity to sample some good bottles from Eastern Europe. As for dessert, the beauty of the dishplay in the front of the house is only slightly misleading. The standout is the strudel, extraordinary strudel. Serbian Crown creates some of the city's best dinner parties. Sholl's Cafeteria 1990 K St. NW. 296-3065. 1433 K St. NW. 783-4133. Br, L, D $1-$3.50. Closed Sun. No credit cards. One of Washington's finest features is the Sholl's cafeteria duet, and this year the Connecticut Avenue branch has been moved to K Street in bright new expanded surroundings. The tea-roomy furnishings have been preserved, and even the bag ladies have made the move. Still the food remains -- with a few exceptions -- as fresh and satisfying and inexpensive as ever. At less than $1.50 you don't expect veal cutlet to be more than a breaded veal burger, and cafeteria fried fish is bound to be overexposed to heat. Nevertheless, they are pleasant foods, accompanied by fresh vegetables, salads such as potato and cucumber that are freshly made, homemade biscuits, cornbread and doughnuts, ripe melons and other fruits, fine custards and puddings and famous pies -- though the last sample of apple pie tasted of canned apples, hopefully a temporary aberration. It is the quality and freshness of the foodstuffs that is stunning at the price. Foods are cooked in small quantities to avoid steam-table fatigue. Siam Inn 11407 Amherst Ave. Wheaton. 942-0075. L, D, $2.95-$7.50. L daily ex Wed, D daily. MC, V. Some of the most intriguing, well-prepared and modestly priced food in Washington is Thai food. And Siam Inn serves well as an introduction to Thai food or an in-depth exploration for those who already know it. Siam Inn is small and pretty, with colorful parasols shading the lights, blue cloths covering the tables, and framed Thai prints on the walls. Waitresses in native dress guide you through the menu's intricacies. Thai food tends to be fiery, but you can avoid the searing dishes if necessary. Sauces are well-seasoned and unstarched, vegetables bright and crisp. In a Thai restaurant, servings tend to be small, with appetizers and main dishes similar in size. But the total cost remains low. Try a variety of appetizers: skewered pork satay, tiny crisp pillows of seafood to dip in sweet-hot sauces, chicken stuffed with crab and pork and deep fried. Pepper spareribs, unctuous and tender and garlic-spiced, are delicious. For main dishes, discover duck in oyster sauce, boned and rolled and seasoned with anise, on a bed of crisp green vegetables. Curries are less interesting than the dishes with garlic and pepper, that combination being a magic phrase at the Siam Inn. Wash it down with Thai beer, and make a list of dishes you must get around to next time. Szechuan 615 I St. NW. 393-0130. L $3.25-$4.75, D $3.25- $11, Open daily. AE, V. This has been Washington's star Chinese restaurant since its opening, and it still serves the widest selection of Szechuan dishes and reaches the top when it tries. Unfortunately, it is trying less and less. To start, the stair carpet is embarrassingly dirty. The greeting at the top of the stairs is perfunctory, as is the service. One special 10-course dinner was served with all the fiery dishes at once, then followed with crispy duck after nobody's tongue could taste such mild seasoning. The kitchen is obviously very capable; shrimps and scallops are cooked just briefly enough, sauces achieve delicate balances between sweet and sour, hot and sour, ginger and scallion. Dark sauces are dense with flavor, pale sauces delicate but rich. Then there are the oversalted dishes and the overthickened sauces here and there, the missing ginger in the Mongolian beef with ginger, the excessively oily pork Hunan style, the fatty duck. Szechuan has been a leader serving spicy cold meat platters and expanding the Szechuan repertoire. It serves a unique variety of dim sum on weekends, hearty casserole dishes in winter, special dinners for special occasions. And it breaks the Chinese restaurant dessert tradition with sliced fresh oranges. It just needs an infusion of energy to established a consistency in the cooking and some enthusiasm in the dining room. Szechuan and Hunan Restaurant 1776 E. Jefferson St. Rockville. 770-5020. L $2.45-$3.25, D$4.50-$8.95. L daily ex Sun, D daily. MC, V. Taking the restaurant's name as your guide to ordering can bring you an uncommonly good Chinese meal at this pleasantly decorated, quiet restaurant. The dan dan noodles need a touch of vinegar, but this cold noodle dish has a dark sauce that is hot yet subtle. Bung bung chicken is smoothly sauced and spicy. Peppery as they are, though, the dishes do not send you racing to the rice bowl to cool your tongue. Check the first page of the menu for specialties. Shredded chicken Hunan style should be part of your meal as well as that old Szechuan standby, orange-flavor beef. As for hot, spicy shredded crispy beef, it is sweet and crunchy, a difficult dish to make and done very well here. Just as complicated but less controversial is camphor and tea-smoked duck, fried to a lean crispness. Whatever the dish, Szechuan and Hunan cooks with the kind of precision that assures juiciness in meats, crispness in vegetables, and sauces with balanced, complex flavors with rarely a pool of grease and never a starchy thickness. The menu is long, with much to explore on repeated visits. Service is solicitous, and the environment is a serene change from Chinese red. Szechuan Garden 7945 Tuckerman Lane. Rockville. 299-3525. L $1.95-$3.50, D $4.50-$9.95. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. Among the first of the Szechuan restaurants in the metropolitan area, Szechuan Garden still maintains the courage of its convictions. Its hot dishes are serious about being hot. And it still maintains a style of service that communicates with the diner, suggesting what is freshest and helping to devise one's menu. The restaurant is spacious and brightly decorated, a forest of red and gold bamboo themes. Prices are moderate.But so is the overall quality. The last visit found battle fatigue showing in the reheated duck and the marinated cold meats. The beef was skimpy in the beef with orange flavor, and the sauces lacked depth or were excessively thickened.Seafoods were the most successful dishes, and Szechuan scallops were a delightful blending of soft textures and strong pepper and garlic. Szechuan Garden is a better Chinese restaurant that this city knew 20 years ago, but has relaxed from its early vigor. Tandoor 3316 M St. NW. 333-3376. L $2.75- $6, D $4.50-$9.95. Open daily. D, MC, V. Indian restaurants are expected to be either bare-bones neutral or ornate. Tandoor is a visual surprise, its small dining rooms bright with orange lacquered chairs and cloths of contemporary design. Nobody would blink if it were Scandinavian. The focal point is obviously Indian, the tandoor oven behind a glass wall, where the chef skewers chicken, lamb and seafood and suspends them in the oven to cook. It is a magnetic show and properly tempts you to order from the tandoor oven-cooked specialties. Start with a beer or a Pimm's cup, a faintly sweet alcoholic drink stirred with a cucumber stick.With it have an assortment of appetizers, the best of which are grilled ground lamb kebabs called kofta, or fried pastry triangles called samosas (eggplant are the best of the lot). Skip the tandoor platter that mixes the grilled meats and seafoods, for the tandoor fish is strongly fishy and the shrimp are dry. Chicken and lamb are the best preparations, and red-tinged from their yogurt and spice marinade, smoky but mildly seasoned. The menu also lists many curries and the range of Indian dishes, but sometimes they are very good, other times disappointing. Accompany your meal with tandoor-cooked bread; it is the best choice, as the puri is doughy. Obviously, the tandoor over gets the chef's greatest attention. The waiter may suggest side dishes, but keep in mind that they rapidly elevate the bill. Desserts, if you like intensely sweet Indian desserts, are well made here, and you can end with milky tea spiced with fennel and cardamom. Taverna Cretekou 818 King St. Alexandria. 548-8688. L $3.75-$4.75, D $7.25-$10.50. Closed Mon. AE, MC, V. Among Washington's variety of Middle Eastern restaurants one stands out for its charm alone. Taverna Cretekou looks like a white-washed Greek island courtyard, with archways separating two dining rooms and Mediterranean blue tablecloths linking them. Even prettier is the garden, most of it covered with an awning for shade. The garden is edged with brick and flower beds and furnished with pierced metal tables. Its noise comes from guitar music rather than bus and car exhausts as at most of Washington's outdoor restaurants. Dinner (or even better, Sunday brunch) is served by gregarious waiters in black shirts with black britches, intent on making the evening festive. As for the food, it is generally good, with peaks and lapses, more than one would like at the price. Start with satyrikon, an artistically arranged plate of cold appetizers, the best of which are eggplant spread, taramosalata and spinach and cheese pies. Stuffed grape leaves and egg lemon soup lack zest. Among main dishes, the assortment is a large and good sampling of the field. Lamb is strongly flavored and long-cooked, teamed with meat-cheese stuffing or artichokes and cheeses or eggplant or vegetables. It is a better choice than seafoods. But if you haven't had spinach pie for an appetizer, try it next. Desserts are highly syrupy pastries. And keep in mind that the best of the food is at Sunday brunch. Thai Room 527 13th St. NW. 638-2444. 5037 Connecticut Ave. NW. 244-5933. L $2.75-$4.25, D $3- $7. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily, closed Sun. AE, D, MC, V. Washington's oldest Thai restaurant and long one of its best bargain restaurants, the Thai Room comes up with something new each year. One year it was opening a second restaurant downtown in an amusingly grandiose Roman setting. Now it has expanded the uptown branch at Connecticut and Nebraska Avenues and added an outdoor cafe under an awning. Through it all, the food has remained fine and the price low. The kitchen has become more efficent so that one need not expect long waits. And though the uptown setting is still simple, it has been upgraded with silk flowers and gilded framed rubbings. Appetizers remain the best dishes: charcoal-grilled satay with sweet-spicy peanut sauce are still as good as the best in town. Chicken stuffed with crabmeat and mushrooms and deep fried; fragile fried wontons; chewy, chili-spiked fish cakes and fiery cold-meat salads start a meal well.Main dishes are priced about the same as appetizers, justifiably since both portions are about the same size. You may need to order an extra. Be prepared for searing-hot foods or ask for them less so. Sample the daily curry, strong with ginger and coriander. Definitely order pork, shrimp, beef or chicken with white pepper and garlic, one of the mildly peppered dishes. Chicken or beef with basil, farily hot, are interesting, as are steamy, sweet-spicy spareribs. Rely on your waitress to steer you to new dishes like caramel-sweet and savory crispy noodles or stuffed scrambled eggs. The menu is an adventure. Tiberio 1915 K. St. NW. 452-1915. L $7.95-$9.50, D $8.95-$18.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. One of the most elegantly appointed and highest priced of Washington's restaurants, Tiberio is northern Italian and formal, but contemporary in its mode. Modern paintings and the looped black cords of hanging lamps are the fixed decorative focus. But even more visually arresting are the bouquets of salmon-colored roses and the table of pastries (though strawberries displayed in their little green plastic baskets detract from the effect). The menu is long, with in-depth attention to pastas and veal as well as Italian-style French classics such as quennelles and duck with orange sauce. The quality of the food is high, though the final dishes are often forgettable or flawed by indifferent service that delays their reaching the table. Pastas are the highlight, whether aromatic agnolotti or tortellini in creamy sauces or penne with a biting tomato and bacon sauce. Liver Venetian style is an enticing a dish as I have found on the menu. The food is good in an unremarkable way, but the service plays favorites so that non-regulars can experience long delays, pressure to order side dishes and forgetfulness. Go to Tiberio with somebody important unless your own name is a household word. Timberlake's 1726 Connecticut Ave. NW. 483-2266. L $2.50-$4.95, D $2.50-$6.50. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Generally you go to a neighborhood pub for neighborliness, and at Timberlake's you get plenty of that. The room is full of materials -- brick, wood -- that exude warmth, the bar is long and well-attended, and the place is as noisy as it should be, considering that it is a pub. The food is even better than it should be. Appetizers run from oysters to very good fried cheese sticks, and you could hardly do better than hanging around Timberlake's with a beer and a couple of appetizers. Dinner entrees are more variable, while the sandwiches have maintained their reputation. Salads are big and beautiful, but combinations such as crabmeat, greens and coconut don't really work, particularly since the main ingredients are only ordinary. Quiches are soft and fresh custards filled with delicacies like lobster and mushrooms, good productions. For a drinking place, Timberlake's has good eating. Trattu 1823 Jefferson Place. NW. 466-4570. L $4.50-$5.95, D $4.95-$8.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Jefferson Place is a precious little street with two precious little restaurants, both of them with good food and a strong following. Trattu, like its neighbor Bacchus, is a few steps down from the sidewalk, a virbrant and attractive but jam-packed dining room. Maybe the management doesn't want to use up valuable space with more staff bodies, but the dining room seems shorthanded. While usually pleasant, service is intermittent and erratic. And the kitchen refuses to sell half orders of pasta. The attraction is the food, a short menu. Italian, moderately priced. Pastas, being home-made and boldly seasoned, are priced considerably lower than homemade pastas in equivalent restaurants. They are more consistently good than main courses, though lamb heavily dosed with garlic and rosemary is delicious -- except that it is overcooked and badly carved. Order simple veal or fish dishes, perhaps sausage. Vitello tonnato is on the menu but is not the chef's best effort. Side dishes are -- zucchini with tomatoes or rosemary-scented potatoes. In all, Trattu is a vivacious-looking little restaurant and one of the few moderately priced Italian restaurants that goes beyond lasagne and chicken cacciatore, making everything fresh and succeeding in pleasing most of the time. Trudie Ball's Empress 1018 Vermont Ave. NW. 737-2324. L $3.50-$4.50, D $3.25-$11.50. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Lunchtime is the focal point of Trudie Ball's Empress, for it covers needs from a quick, cheap buffet lunch to leisurely eating from the extensive dinner menu. The menu goes on for pages, with the last suggesting extraordinary order-in-advance dishes like braised shark's fin, tiger lobster and beggar-style chicken. The run-of-the-mill food is competently prepared, one of the best being spicy chicken with peanuts. Fresh vegetables are excellent; try sauteed watercress, for instance. Peking duck is available without advance ordering and you can take advantage of the kitchen's excess of duck meat in bean sprouts or duck soup two of the better buys on the menu. The empress is one of Washington's long-standing Chinese restaurants, well-appointed and well-organized, with food that is reliable and occassionally outstanding. Tung Bor 11154 Georgia Ave. Wheaton. 933-3687. L $3.25-$4.75, D $3.75- $18. Closed Mon. MC,V. Tung Bor keeps reaching for new stars and despite a few slipups (and high prices) it is setting the pace for Chinese restaurants in the area. It was the first to serve several dozen varieties of dim sum on rolling carts on weekends. And they remain fine examples of the dim sum art. Its extensive dinner menu lists complicated dishes (mixed seafoods in a lacy fried nest of taro, deep-fried stuffed bean curd). But most enticing is the daily list of chef's specials that take advantage of seasonal sea-foods, fruits and vegetables. They might be clams with chili and black bean sauce or chicken cooked with fresh mangoes. Appetizers are especially good at Tung Bor; the egg rolls particularly are light-crusted and meaty. Shrimp toast is exceptionally good. And the assorted appetizers are more elegantly served than the usual pu pu tray. Order the fresh seafoods listed as specials at the entrance, or a superb breaded whole fish with shredded pork and vegetables. Unfortunately, the rainbow beef has slid from excellence into a clumsy rendition. Waitresses are usually reliable about steering you towards the best dishes. The room looks as if somebody in Hollywood took a hand in decorating it, but it is comfortable. At its best, Tung Bor has no superior. With its new high prices, though, consistency is mandatory. Twigs In the Capital Hilton Hotel. 16th and K Sts. NW. 393-1000 Ext. 1621. L $4.25-$7.25, D $9.25-$13.95. Open daily. Ae, cb, d, mc, v, Hilton. Hotel dining rooms have their well-deserved unsavory reputation, but if you judge Twigs as a hotel dining room rather than as a restaurant, it wins applause. First, it is a lush restaurant, with deep sofas and comfortable armchairs, a seating variety that lets you cater to your mood: sunny or cozy or formal or casual. Service is cheerful, attentive, as well as frequently confused. The menu is gimmicky, adding quirks to classic dishes, but often they work. A quiche crusted with crepes, for instance, is a clever solution to forming individual quiches that can be cooked to order rather than reheated, and the thin crisp crepes are much better than the usual soggy undercrust. Oysters Benedict are a pleasant alternative to eggs. Dishes are handsomely garnished, bunches of grapes centering the club sandwich, for instance. and salads are extravagant-looking. Twigs is at its best with coffee-shop food (at high prices) prepared with flair, rather than more serious preparations such as aspics. And it serves an honest rice pudding. 219 219 King St. Alexandria. 549-1141. L $4- $9, D $8-$13.50. Open daily. AE, MC V. If Creole food is a hybird, so is this Creole restaurant, its 1890s interior of marble and crystal and tufted velour wrapped in a contemporary glass facade. 219 has borrowed the best of several decorative modes. Outdoors is a cafe with lacy black iron table; the entry is modern- under-glass. The dining rooms are Victorian; the Bayou Room is stone-clad pub. A lot of care went into planning 219. The watiers have been trained to be familiar with the food. The airlines have been commissioned to fly in fresh seafood from the Gulf.This is one restaurant that has culinary excitement in every course. Start with drinks: orange-scented ramos gin fizz, milk punch, sazarac, absinthe suissesse. The wine list is extensive, especially attentive to California. One could spend happy weeks sampling and resampling just the appetizers: barbecued shirimp, sauteed in the shell and heads in a cayenne-tinged buttery fire; pale green seafood gumbo; simple red bean soup, wonderful peppery oyster stew. Only shrimp Creole, among the soups and gumbos, missed the boat. Don't miss the shrimp or crab remoulade, and crab royale is an extravaganza. Of course there are several styles of baked oysters, the best being Bienville. Main courses are easier choices, and more fraught with possible disappointment. Skip the steaks and tread lightly among the poultry. Head for the seafoods and rest there among the poisson en papillote, fried catfish, barbecued shrimp. Frogs' legs can't compete. And definitely look in on brunch. In the Brennan's tradition, it elaborates eggs with hollandaise and catfish and fried oysters and all such wonders. 209 1/2 209 1/2 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 544-6352. L $10-$12.95, D $18. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Tiny, beautiful and innovative, 209 1/2 is unique. Dinner has very few choices; at lunch there is a slightly wider selection. In either case, the choices are often intriguing, dishes like bouillabaisse of veal and mushrooms; bass baked with leeks and tarragon, served with watercress hollandaise; cold scallops with snow peas. The preparations are delicate, precise, with a proper respect for immaculately fresh food. Dinner can start with unusual aperitifs, such as red wine kir or champagne with red lillet. Appetizers and generally light and flecked with fresh herbs. Vegetables are not neglected by the supervising imaginations. Desserts are experimental, but the favorite seems to be a lavishly rich sour cream chocolate cake. If there is a complaint it is likely to be about the narrow choices at dinner rather than about the preparation itself, although veal cooked rare one evening was a weak dish. Service is suave. And the mauve-painted room, coordinated beautifully from flowers to service plates, is a delightful place to dine. It is so small, however, that you are advised to go in groups of four rather than two, lest your intimate evening be closely shared with the couple at your elbow. Washington Palm 1225 19th St. NW. 293-9091. L $4.50- $32, D $6.50- $32. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. It doesn't have the sawdust on the floor like the New York Palm, and the beef has not quite the same character, but this Washington branch of that famous steakhouse has definite rewards. The steak is reliable if not glorious; it is thick and crusty and rare when you ask. It can be served a la Palm with onions and red peppers, sliced and bedded on toast to absorb the juices -- sometimes chewy but very good. If you can't decide between the hash browns or the Palm fries, try half of each. They are grand, as are the vegetables when they are not overcooked. Lobsters are giant, but one could cost a family's weekly food budget. At lunch, don't pass up the soup -- one of the best in town, and a startling 75 cents. Part of the Palm's trademark is the service, a routine of camaraderie and fraternity jokes, fun except when they forget to bring what you requested three times. The Wayfarers 110 S. Pitt St. Alexandria. 836-2749. L $2.80-$6.50, D $6.80- $12. L daily ex Mon, D daily, closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Washington is short on English pubs, but Wayfarers helps fill the gap. One room is carefully rustic, with bare wood floors and brick walls, the other a formal Colonial dining room, and both are delightful. Small touches like handwoven placemats and unusually good imported draft beer set this above the crowd of pretty hamburger and omelet places. The best of the food is English: Cornish pasties with flaky crusts and sausage fillings, steak and kidney pies with intense gravies and meaty aromas. Veal is an asset to the menu, too. If you choose carefully, you can eat very well, in charming surroundings, for a moderate outlay. If the menu calls it pie, order it; if the title is quiche, go on to something else. Yenching Palace 3524 Connecticut Ave. NW. 362-8200. L $2.50- $8, D $3.10- $16. Open daily. AE, CB, CC, D, V. When it is good it is very, very good, this old-time Chinese restaurant that has become part of Washington's history. Prices are high compared to most. Chinese restaurants, and waiters are likely to encourage you to order more food, than you need. But when the kitchen is humming, you will want more food than you need anyway. Among the hot appetizers only the spareribs are worth bothering with. Concentrate instead on the dishes designated with stars, the house specialities. Yuling duck is very crisp, with a dark, salty and tart wash of sauce that is highly complimentary. Tung Ting shrimp is soft and pale and delicate. Beef Shanghai plays with the contrast of beef and scallops. Occasionally a dish is too greasy or the chicken overcooked, and hot dishes are too timid, sweet dishes too sweet. But the best are among the best in Washington. Yenching Palace of Alexandria 905 N. Washington St. Alexandria. 836-3200. L $2.95-$5.75, D $4- $9. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. If there is one thing you can count on in Chinese restaurants, it is inconsistency. The day, the chef, the dish combine anew each visit. Your chances are good, however, at Alexandria's Yenching Palace. First, the dining room is spacious and attractive, with a brick-lined cocktail lounge and good art works and wood carvings. As for the food, its ingredients are fresh and precisely cut, its sauces are light, though sometimes greasy. Skill shows in the vegetarian's delight, each vegetable a proper shape and texture, the whole colorful and pleasing. Yuling duck is a specialty, the skin crisp and savory with soy sauce and scallions. The menu is a sprinkling of dishes from various regions in China, with house specialties identified with stars. Take the menu's advice and order the specialties.