Dining out in some of Washington's plush eateries has become more than a gastronomic event -- it is an esthetic experience. In this highly competitive field, restaurateurs are finding that good food is not enough: all the senses must be stirred. And so they work hard to serve up a room full of atmosphere -- to whip up an ambience you can almost eat.

Soft recessed lights pinpoint food, mirrors expand space and allow you to see people on the other side of the room, banquettes and comfortable chairs squish under your ever-increasing width.

Today restaurant owners pay top dollar for big name chefs and spend big bucks for Victorian bars, stained glass windows, beams dripping with fern and floors dotted with weeping fig trees.

Not so many years ago, most restaurants were designed by the people hired to install kitchen equipment. A restaurateur would pick a "look" out of a catalogue and the installer would arrange for everything from disposals to dining chairs, chandeliers to wine chillers. Increasingly, however, restaurant owners are turning to architects and designers to create distinctive dining environments. In short, "People are becoming more and more aware that design sells," says Barbara Witt, owner of The Big Cheese, which was one of the city's first restaurants with a contemporary interior when it opened six years ago.

To "sell" food in this new era of design consciousness, an eatery may spend as much as 50 percent of the total cost of building and furnishing a restaurant to create a dining room and bar with character. What few people realize is that the design of those environments is often dictated not by the designer or the owner, but by the local liquor board, the health department and the fire marshal.

For example, in Virginia the Alcohol and Beverage Control Commission dictates the minimum-size restaurant for a mixed drink license and the minimum-size tables for the establishment.

Local jurisdictions regulate the ratio of sales of food to alcohol. In Virginia and the District, a restaurant serving mixed drinks must sell as much food as liquor to maintain its license. In Montgomery County, tablecloth restaurant (as opposed to the fast-food variety) with Class B licenses (beer, wine and liquor) and not located in hotels or motels must make two-thirds of all their sales on food and only a third on alcoholic beverages. And you can't even get a license if your restaurant has less than 1,000 square feet.

'We just squeaked by with La Miche," says designer Andi Werner in describing her work on one of Bethesda's most imaginatively decorated restaurants. "We just had 1,000 square feet." Even the location of the bar in this small (95-seat) restaurant is dictated by county regulations which state that the customer should not have direct access to the bar unless food is served there -- thus La Miche's bar is located in a smaller room to the right of the main doorway. After the closing of the short-lived popular Positano Italian restaurant, the firm of Werner/Holbrook had four weeks in which to create a new very French environment for the new owner, Christien Domergue of the fashionable downtown Bread Oven restaurant.

"I think people want a kind of relaxed, fantasy environment when they go out to eat," says Werner, whose firm designed both the D.C. and Virginia Apple tree bar and restaurants, Intermission at White Flint and the Bread Oven. From a Bethesda neighborhood of offices and small shops to a brown and beige bit of France is indeed a flight of fantasy.

"At La Miche, we tried to create a 17th-century French country environment -- muted tones, beams hung with baskets (all soaked in fireproofing chemicals to meet fire safety standards), a 17th-century chandelier and soft, recessed lighting," says Werner. Part of the softness comes from the clever use of shirred curtains as a wall treatment -- a technique that could be used in a home to hide a multitude of sins on the unexposed wall. In the case of La Miche, the wall beneath boasts the white stucco of the restaurant's previous Italian incarnation. The curtains, also flame-proofed, were a less expensive solution than trying to remove the stucco finish, and incidentally serve to muffle sound in the tiny restaurant.

The homey atmosphere of La Miche, Werner believes, is part of a larger trend in restaurant design towards a more residential look. "People are looking for good food, but they also want esthetic comfort," says Werner, whose business is about 75 percent restaurant-disco bar oriented. "After all, when you go out to eat, you spend anywhere from two to three hours at the table -- it should be comfortable."

The same logic led Barbara Witt and John Vorhees in 1973 to design The Big Cheese in Georgetown as an extension of their tastes in residential furnishings -- wooden tables with placemats, director's chairs, individual light fixtures over each table, and no waiter's stations with ugly bins filled with dirty dishes. The now-defunct upstairs lounge was filled with couches that were more at home in a living room setting than the traditional bar. Today, the bar has been transformed into additional dining space with thick banquettes covered with splashes of colored Indonesian Dutch Wax batik fabrics. Art work, not unlike the kind one might find in a tastefully decorated home, embellishes the walls.

While many restaurants still cover their walls with amateurish oil paintings "for sale," others have seen the wisdom of a more calculated approach in which the art sets the tone for the restaurant. The flamboyant, now-closed Paradise Cafe was a good example of a dramatic mix of art and design. Another more staid example is the old English Hunt Club atmosphere of The Jockey Club, enhanced by prints of dogs and horses taken from the owner's personal collection. Old pewter tankards and a leather upholstered bar complete the feeling of an intimate 19th-century club room. The room, divided in three parts, is sparsely lit, creating the kind of atmosphere conducive to a quiet, private meal.

The direct contrast to The Jockey Club approach is the wide open spaces of Fantastic Fritzbe's Good Time Emporium in Fairfax City. A large (270-seat) restaurant and bar, it is designed on two levels so that everyone can be seen even if they can't be heard over the din of rock music. Patrons, along with touches of Victoriana and stained glass, become part of the entertainment of the "emporium." The room's banquette seats even have mirrors above them so that those seated with their backs to the main dining area don't miss any of the action.

In contrast to the dark woods and heaviness of the Victorian or turn-of-the-century look is the increasingly popular "California Cafe" style -- light woods, contemporary seating, lots of plants. The look can be seen at places like Duddington's on Capitol Hill and Twigs in the Capital Hilton on 16th Street. Washington's penchant for restored townhouse and warehouse restaurants can be seen in a collection of eateries sporting raw brick walls, globe lights and spider plants -- a now almost predictable cliche. From Sarsfield's to La Bergerie, raw brick is in.

The current interest in a more casual cafe-restaurant has brought about light-wood, bookish environments like Kramerbooks & afterwords on Connecticut Avenue and the new Cafe de Artistas, a sparsely furnished restaurant and bar attached to a second-story Georgetown gallery.The cafe, located at the back of the gallery, is an exercise in shades of gray. Recessed lights shine down on light gray ceramic tile floors. Charcoal gray and chrome chairs and dark tables dominate this pristine gray-walled environment. The bar, on a raised gray-carpeted platform, is distinguished by a span of gray glass behind the serving area. Even the ceiling is punctured with large gray skylights. With the exception of the paintings on the walls, the only color in the room is a set of futuristic-looking chrome bar stools upholstered in bright magenta. In contrast to the entertainment provided at Fantastic Fritzbe's, the cafe pipes in classical music and has an ebony concert piano at the center of the room for live performances.

Clyde's of Tysons Corner, due to open in early March of 1980, promises one of the area's most extravagant restaurant interiors. The $4 million-plus budget for construction and furnishings will bring diners in touch with works by several of the country's outstanding craftsmen. Alexandria furniture designer Peter Danko has been commissioned to design chairs for the restaurant, wrought-iron artist Albert Paley will be doing several pieces, Kenneth von Roenn Jr. is doing several leaded glass windows and screens, and Robin Hill has been commissioned to do paintings of water fowl. In addition, the firm is buying up original Art Deco period art work for a section of the restaurant.The 400-seat house will place diners in rooms around a large rectangular bar. Unlike the intimacy of the Georgetown Clyde's (which was modeled after a turn-of-the century New York Third Avenue bar), this more contemporary environment is designed so that the passing parade and the art work become the entertainment for guests.

Despite the money going into distinctive atmospheres for dining out, it's still not clear how important all this effort is to the public. There's no way to determine how much of the price of a meal goes to paying for ambience you can't eat. And there's no way to determine how successful a Clyde's or a Hamburger Hamlet might be without their emphasis on decor. These restaurants have identities in the minds of their patrons, in part because of the atmospheres they create. But, as Clyde's part-owner John Latham muses, "There are long lines at Crisfield's, and you can't really say much about their decor. . . ."