Washington still has about 5,000 restaurants. It still has some of best the French restaurants in the country -- and some of the worst. It still has nearly half a dozen Ethiopian restaurants but none from Scandinavia.

When one reviews the range of Washington restaurants every year, it is no surprise that the situation remains pretty stable -- a few get better and a few get worse, many open and just as many close. But always there are enough improvements to keep one believing that Washington is constantly becoming a better and better eating city.

Jean-Louis alone has settled Washington more firmly in the list of cities for serious eating, even drawing respectful attention from the culinary Olympus -- France. But two other major cuisines have contributed restaurants that deserve to be at the top of anyone's dining list. The House of Hunan is an exceptional addition to Washington's hundreds of Chinese restaurants, and Vincenzo's, once the kinks are ironed out, is aiming for the top among Italian restaurants. We have even added an outstanding new American restaurant -- a grill room at last -- T. Gregory's.

These ambitious projects are all the more remarkable for coming when Washington's restaurants are feeling, belatedly, the economic pinch. Empty tables are seen for the first time in some restaurants. And diners are ordering more lightly. With costs of everything rising more rapidly than menus can be reprinted, the profit margin is narrowing. And the price range is tightening, with less difference than ever between the average checks of modest and grand restaurants.

Eating trends move slowly, but in Washington they are continuing steadily towards seafoods and away from red meats. There now is more than one answer to, "Where is a good seafood restaurant?" And even more important, increasingly restaurants are serving seafood that is fresh rather than frozen, and cooking it properly.

With so many good new restaurants, it is obvious why some old favorites have missed being reviewed this year. If you want to know why I have not evaluated Le Provencal or El Bodegon or the Blue Nile or whichever of your favorites is missing, the answer is that there is no good answer. In the six months during which I visit restaurants -- at least once a day -- for the Fall Dining Guide, I must arbitrarily leave out some that are as important or agreeable as many that are included. Some establishments -- Paul Young's and Sans Souci, for example -- were dropped at the last minute because of major staff changes whose effects I had no opportunity to evaluate. I will try to get to them next year.

But that is the proof for anyone who doubts that Washington is a good restaurant city. It is one of those exciting cities where you could visit a different restaurant every day for six months and still not get to all the good ones.

Key: Ecept for actual reviews, information about restaurants found in this guide was supplied by the restaurants themselves. Restaurants listed but not reviewed requested inclusion. Prices are for the least and most expensive main dishes at lunch (L) and dinner (D). Initials are of credit cards accepted. "Children's prices" indicates that restaurants serve smaller portions of regular entrees at reduced rates or have a seperate children's menu. "Full bar service" indicates that the establishment is licensed to sell spirits as well as beer and wine . The Abyssinian 2020 Florida Ave. NW. 265-5860. L, D $4-$5.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. No credit cards. Reservations accepted for five or more only. Street parking or garage across the street. Full bar service. Children's prices. Alexander's Three 1500 Wilson Blvd. 527-0100. L $3.95-$8.95, D $6.95-$14.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in building garage. Full bar service. Children's prices. Alpenhof 1243 20th St. NW. 223-3794. L $4.50-$6.95, D $8.50-$11.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Commercial parking lots. Full bar service.

German restaurants are scarce in Washington, and Alpenhof reminds you what fun they can be. The dining room, arranged with raised platform and balcony in addition to the main dining room, is dark wood with bright blue accents, a bit old and a bit new and very much in the spirit of a Bierstube. Waiters are so charming and sprightly that you half except them to break out into a song from The Student Prince . Unfortunately, their attentions are intermittent, as is the quality of the food. Order spicy rather than subtle dishes, particularly wursts. Appetizers include savory German variations on charcuterie: air-dried beef, head cheese, Westphalian ham and tangy vinegary meat, cheese or herring salads. Oxtail soup, in contrast, is disappointing. Main courses range from boiled beef (dry and grim) to a platter of smoked meats with sauerkraut and dumplings, and certainly you should try the sauerkraut and dumplings, even if the latter are a bit pasty. There are also Wienerschnitzel, Sauerbraten, goulash and roast pork, plus a parade of desserts from apple strudel to Sachertorte of distinction. Alpenhof, though not flawless, is a unique Teutonic touch in downtown Washington. Alpine 4770 Lee Hwy. Arlington. 528-7600. L $3.25-$6.25, D $4.95-$12.75. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. Aluisi 9867 Georgetown Pike, Great Falls, Va. 759-4921. L $1.50-$6.75, D $6.75-$10.50. L daily, D daily ex Sun. Closed Mon. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested.Parking lot in front. Full bar service. Amalfi 12307 Wilkins Ave., Rockville. 770-7888. L $3-$7.50, D $3.75-$17. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. Closed Mon. AE, V. Reservations accepted, suggested for large parties. Parking lot. Beer and wine only. Children's prices. American Cafe 1211 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 337-3600. 227 Massachusetts Ave. NE. 547-8500. L, d $3.25-$6.50. Open daily. MC, V. No reservations. Street parking. Full bar service.

There are things these two vibrant, plush anthologies of the American casual-eating classics do better than anybody else in town. The brownies, the chocolate chip cookies (from the Capitol Hill branch's carryout market), the macadamia nut roll, the chicken and green bean and seafood salads would win on any first ballot. The corned beef is the best this side of Baltimore, and the roast beef and turkey revive the worth of those delicatessen meats. On the plate, the food is pretty and fresh, and the diversity caters to those hungering after a full traditional meal or just a sandwich. There are no hamburgers, but there are barbecue and vegetarian and hot turkey and chili dog and submarine sandwiches, soups that range from superb to slapdash, quiches made with extremely good crust and zesty fillings, then desserts centering on crepes and ice creams plus those most traditional of pastries -- pecan pie, cheesecake, and brownies. The restaurants also offer outstanding lists of American wines as well as imports. Prices reflect the quality of goods -- high. But between the commissary kitchen that serves the cafes and the plate there is many a slip, with skimpy meat in the sandwiches, drying out of the quiches, chili sinking soggily into the French roll of the chili dog. Amphora 377 Maple Ave. W., Vienna.938-7877. L, D $1.50-$12.50. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Full bar service.Children's prices. Apana 3066 M St. NW. 965-3040. D $7-$15. D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking or nearby lots. Full bar service.

The Indian food is as enticing as ever, pretty and fresh with subtle contrasts of seasoning and texture. And the service is still quietly efficient. But Apana has changed its seating arrangements so that you can no longer expect a high-backed booth allowing privacy, but are likely to be seated a few inches from the next table. Still, it is dim and pretty, with elegant patterned fabrics. Prices are generally around two digits for entrees, but this is Indian food of particular character, where the interplay of aromas and tastes takes precedence over heat. Trout or red snapper are afloat in nutty clarified butter with almonds, mushrooms, onions, ripe tomatoes and coconut milk, garnished with crisp green broccoli.Neither meats nor vegetables are overcooked. Start with fried samosas or pakoras to dip into tart, aromatic tamarind chutney. Charcoal-grilled bits of meat are also scintillating. Then match the nearly two dozen main dishes -- Cornish hen with ginger, lemon, coriander and cognac; shrimp with yogurt and coconut; beef with nuts and cream; and, of course, the fish -- with puffed or grilled breads, chutneys made with fresh herbs, vegetable side dishes, to concoct a highly personal Indian feast. Apple Tree 1220 19th St. NW. 223-3780. L $3.95-$7.25, D $6.95-$11.95. L, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in building lot. Full bar service. Arabian Nights 2915 Connecticut Ave. NW. 232-6684. L, D $7-$11. L, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Street parking. Beer and wine only.

Bare linoleum, a bakery counter, beaded curtains and a well-scrubbed air make up the Arabian Nights, a family-run operation that is just short of eating in someone's home. Dinner is the time to try it, for the same menu is available for lunch and is priced high for midday eating. And at dinner, the charcoal-grilled skewered meats are the stars of the menu, particularly shish kebab or kufta kebab. They are tangy from their marinade, smoky and juicy, served with buttery rice and best preceded by very good hummos or baba ghanouj. Also on the menu are stuffed cabbage, squash or grape leaves, kibbeh and a few curries, but none of them matches the kebabs. Finish with nut-filled, cigar-shaped filo pastries and tiny cups of thick coffee. Armand's Chicago Pizzeria 4231 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 244-1100. L $3.50-10, D $4-$12. L, D daily. AE, DC, MC, V. No reservations.Street parking. Full bar service. Au Pied de Cochon 1335 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 333-5440. L $3.25-$4.95, D $3.25-$5.95. L, D daily. No credit cards. No reservations. Street parking. Full bar service. Aux Beaux Champs 2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 342-0444. L $8.25-$11.95, D $11.75-$17.50. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking, free at dinner. Full bar service.

Setting aside the question of food for a moment, let us consider the unique grandeur of the Four Seasons Hotel's restaurant, Aux Beaux Champs. Its window walls fill the scene with the four-season beauty of Rock Creek Park. Soft, rich fabrics cover floors, walls, seats with locally unsurpassed luxury. The space is profligate, the service elaborate and capable. From the central pastry table to the tiny carved batons of apple arranged as spokes on a plate of sweetbreads, the attention to decorative detail is sustained. And the menu is enticing, with little that is strictly routine. While most of the diners I saw one night were ordering shrimp cocktail, they could have chosen for their appetizers Smithfield ham with kiwis and pears, duck terrine with hazelnuts, salmon mousseline with truffles and morels, snails with tarragon, salmon terrine with two caviars, lobster and scallops in a puff pastry case or smoked salmon with blini, plus several more. The captain recites a stream of daily specials -- unfortunately too many to remember and sometimes at prices higher than any other menu entries. But then one returns to the question of the food. It is all right, sometimes very good (as in the case of the delicate mousseline of salmon) and sometimes very bad (as with the $21 lobster meat, dry and tough, in a rosy sauce that tasted of little other than a burned base). The safest dishes I tried were sweetbreads in a calvados-scented cream and beef medallions in a mustard cream with an irrelevant garnish of prune. In general, this is routine cooking with decorator touches, the highlights likely to be from the pastry table. The grand finale is, of all things, a German chocolate cake, probably the best in Washington. Axum 2307 18th St. NW. 232-8844. L, D $2.25-$5.95. Open daily. Mc, v. Reservations suggested. Parking in front. Full bar service. Children's prices. No smoking section.

Suspend your expectations and Axum can be fun. An Adams-Morgan townhouse has been spruced up and hung with African artifacts, set with brown and white vinyl-covered tables and reborn as an Ethiopian-Sudanese restaurant. The menu lists 20 dishes, many of them similar to one another, and all with the large, pale fermented pancakes that serve as platters and silverware for Ethiopian dining. You tear off bits of pancake and scoop up bits of lamb or lentil stew or chopped raw beef. The cooking is simple and homey, with restrained use of the red pepper that is the principal spice. A mild introduction to Ethiopian fire, Axum's food is not the best among local Ethiopian restaurants, but the reasonable prices and gracious room add points. Service is sometimes awkward, as when the waitress asks the patron to open the wine because she does not know how, but the eagerness to please is part of the charm, and Axum is a nice place to visit. Bacchus 1827 Jefferson Pl. NW. 785-0734. L $3.95-$7.95, D $7.50-$8.95. l daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Commercial parking lots. Full bar service.

The good news is that Bacchus now serves Lebanese food at lunch as well as dinner. The bad news is that my last sample of Bacchus' food was nowhere near as luscious as it had been. The hummos special, topped with ground beef and almonds, was not a prettily arranged or as tangy. The two homemade sausages tasted worn out. Where the chicken on spiced rice was previously moist, succulent, delightfully perfumed, this time it was dried out and dull. Thank goodness the shish kebab was perfectly cooked and well-trimmed tender meat, and the orange cream pudding a refreshing contract of tart and sweet. Bacchus is a charming little place, with brick walls and tile tables. And the service is endearing, the wine list modestly priced. It has until now been consistently excellent; I hope its third year blues are short-lived. Bamboo House 9650 Main St., Fairfax. 321-9440. L $2.45-$4.50, D $3.75-$8.95. Open daily. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot at mall. Full bar service. No smoking section. Bamiyan 3320 M St. NW. 338-1896. D $5.95-$8.75. D daily. Closed Sun. Mc Mc, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service.

A little less foreign than it once was, Bamiyan now has American watresses, but they seem familiar with the Afghan food. Other than that, the upstairs dining room is still simple, with the merest Afghan touches; the prices are still low; and the food is better than ever. Premier among the dishes is aushak, whether as an appetizer or main course, the homemade noodles filled with sauteed leeks or scallions, topped with yogurt, mint and tomato meat sauce; it is an inspired combination. Similar topping is served on crisp-edged eggplant or squash to no lesser effect. Or the noodle turnovers can be fried, with the yogurt on the side. Kebabs are also delicious, particularly the marinated lamb; chicken tends to be a bit dry. On the side are sweet spiced rice, beige from its seasonings, and iceberg lettuce salad with a tangy lemon dressing, as well as ridged slabs of homemade bread. The wine list is small, with the Winemsters cabernet an especially good buy. For dessert, the baklava is outstanding, the cardamom-secented cornstarch pudding an acquired taste and the oversize slab of sugared fried dough pleasant to nibble. If you like cardamom, end with scented tea. Bamiyan's main peculiarity is that full course dinners cost more than they do a la carte. Baobab 2106 18th St. NW. 265-2540. L,D $5.75-$7.25. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. Mc, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service.

West African restaurants have come and gone in Washington, but Baobab seems here to stay. The dining room is distinctively African, with grassy wall coverings and artifacts, woven fans hanging from the back of each ladderback chair. Tables are close, but that is not all that runs this into a friendly place. While the menu does not easily translate into English and the waiters are little more descriptive than the menu, the foods are essentially similar, meat or fish stews in peppery tomato or peanut sauces, accompanied on wooden platters by rice or another grain and sauteed cabbage, carrots and zucchini. Some have more vegetables, some fewer. The rice may be replaced with couscous or manioc. The meat and fish are apt to be bony. The food is rustic and homespun. The most interesting and unusual dish is an appetizer -- sauteed bananas and onions in a hot tomato sauce. And the least interesting is at the end -- the ubiquitous carrot cake. Drink homemade ginger beer or more familiar beer or wine. And soak up a lot of atmosphere for very little money. The Big Cheese 3139 M St. NW. 338-3314. L $6.50, D $11,50-$15. L, D daily. Ae, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Public parking lots. Full bar service.

Long a favorite of mine for its refreshing, serene dining room and fresh, inventive food, the Big Cheese has expanded to a lush upstairs dining room full of exotic colorful fabrics and glorious watercolor prints and raised its prices while slipping in quality. The new prices imply a culinary consistency and a level of service that do not actually exist here. Choices still tend to be interesting -- stuffed veal breast, meat-and-fruit stuffed peppers with walnut cream, Cornish hens with herbed cream cheese -- but, except for the two fried cheese dishes that have been mainstays of the restaurant from the beginning, the dishes are full of errors: fine herbed soup with clams that taste canned, batter-fried fish vegetables that retain too much grease, blue cheese puff pastry that is overwhelmed by the blue cheese, pastries that sound luscious but are too dry and over-sweet. The Big Cheese has, at its best, stood still and raised its prices while more sophisticated newcomers are serving better at lower prices. Binnacle II The Tides Lodge, off Rte. 3, Irvington, Va. 804/438-6000. L $2.50-$7, D $6.50-$11. L, D daily. MC, V. No reservations. Parking in adjacent lot. Full bar service. Binnacle III Off Rte. 33, Urbanna, Va. 804/758-2397. L $2.50-$7, D $6.50-$15. L, D daily. Closed Tues, MC, V. No reservations. Parking in adjacent lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. Bistro Francais 3124 M St. NW. 338-3830. L $3.95-$6.95, D $6.25-$9.95. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar services. Black Horse Tavern 1236 20th St. NW. 659-2007. L $3.95-$11.95, D $9.95-$15.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking in adjacent lot. Full bar service. Black Rose 1101 17th St. NW. 296-8075. L $3.35-$6.25, D $4.95-$10.75. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lots and street parking. Full bar service. Blackie's House of Beef 1217 22nd St. NW. 333-1100. L $2.25-$9.95, D $5.75-$14.75. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. Blue Nile 1701 16th St. NW. 232-8400. L $3.50-$4.95, D $3.95-$5.50. L daily ex Mon, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested, required for four or more during weekends. Parking in rear. Full bar service. Children's prices. Booeymonger 5252 Wisconsin Ave. 686-5805. 3265 Prospect St. NW. 333-4810. L, D $1.95-$4.50. Open daily. No credit cards. No reservations. Free parking garage for Wisconsin Ave. location, street parking for Prospect St. Beer and wine only. The Bread Oven 1220 19th St. NW. 466-4264. L $5.95-$6.50, D $6.75-$9.50. L, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in commercial lots. Full bar service.

Behind those etched glass walls of the bread oven is a miniature neighborhood, where bread is being baked, and major decisions are being made between eclairs and pear tarts. In the morning, the coffee-and-croissant crowd gradually readies itself for work. At lunch, a noisy bustle accompanies plats du jour -- a two-week cycle of menus plus daily specials -- with carafes of wine. At dinner, the scene is quieter, slightly more formal. The variety is appealing, from hors d'oeuvre plates that are fresh vegetable salads and tiny bits of pate, sardines and the like, to moist bluefish in nantua sauce to cassoulet or just a rib eye steak with french fries. Sometimes the food is excellent, as with a spicy rillette or very fresh fish. But a change of chefs has brought overcooked chicken, indiffernet sauces. And the cheese plate lacks adventure. The fare is fair these days, though the pastries are more buttery, more delicate, more professional than ever. The Broker 713 8th St. SE. 546-8300. L $5.25-$8.50, D $8.95-$15. L daily ex Sat, D daily.AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking for dinner only. Full bar service. Children's prices. Bullfeathers on Capitol Hill 410 1st St. SE. 543-5005. L $3.75-$7.95, D $5.95-$13.95. L daily, D daily ex Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. No reservations. Free parking in adjacent lot at dinner. Full bar service. Cafe Lafayette 105 N. Alfred St., Alexandria. 548-0076. L $3.25-$6.35, D $15. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. MC, V. Reservations suggested.Parking next to building. Full bar service. Children's prices. Cafe Tatti 6627 Old Dominion Dr., McLean. 790-5164. L $3.75-$6.50, D $9.25-$12.25. L daily ex Sat, D daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Beer and wine only. Children's prices.

If you don't equate French restaurants with ethnic charm, you need an evening at Cafe Tatti. The room is edged in brightly painted tiles, white-washed and set with colorful tablecloths as well as an irresistible buffet display of pastries and cold dishes. The waiters and chef are garrulous, eager to involve you as a friend of the house. And the handwritten menu changes daily, though usually has several dishes in pastry -- dartois, bouchee a la reine -- that take advantage of the pastry chef's skill (the dartois showing him off better than the puff pastry of the bouchee). Only about a half-dozen main courses are available, half of them fish or seafood and generally reliable. Much of the food, whether the soups or sauces, is slightly clumsy, lacking delicacy or being left too bland. But if something very homey, like veal stuffed with seasoned bread crumbs and braised in a brown sauce, is on the menu, you have hit a good night. Drink with it a simple wine, for most are agreeable and well under $10. Look for the puff-pastry-and-almond-paste pithivier for dessert; served warm, it oozes butter and is ribboned with whipped cream. Caffe Italiano 3516 Conecticut Ave. NW. 966-2172. L $3.95-$6.95, D $5.95-$9.50. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested, required on Fri, Sat. Parking in rear. Full bar service.

Once a small storefront eating place, Caffe Italiano has expanded to three rooms on two floors decorated with Impressionist paintings and mirrors, white candles on the tablecloths and black vests on the waiters. Despite the new-found sophistication, the food is still pleasant, rough homestyle food and the kitchen remains as slow as it was when the restaurant was half its present size. The restaurant has become more elegant than the food, and prices reflect ambience rather than culinary character. So order earthy rather than elegant dishes: dense, long-simmered minestrone rather than lemony fish salad that is just rings of squid with a few tiny, tasteless shrimp. Tomato sauces are thick and meaty, though a touch too sweet; they succeed better than spaghetti alla carbonara, which is greasy and short on egg, cheese and seasoning. The homemade rum cake typifies the best and the worst of Caffe Italiano: The whipped cream is fake, but there is plenty of rum. Cagney's 1 Dupont Cir. NW. 659-8820. L $3.95-$7.95, D $6.95-$15.75. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily ex Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking in rear at dinner. Full bar service. Children's prices.

If you are looking for a full-blown example of what is wrong with American restaurants, try Cagney's. Scads of money and effort went into designing this lush multi-level saloon of sincere wood and polished brass. The menu attempts to meet every desire, from pheasant terrine to bacon cheeseburger, from London broil to chicken tarragon salad. But I found no dish that meets any desire. The chili is dull and bland, with little more than a splinter of meat among the beans. Pheasant terrine tastes like mashed-up canned meat. Even the cheeseburger is tough and tasteless, under an embarrassing blanket of American cheese, and nice softshell crabs have been buried in heavy batter and drowned in brown gravy. All this has been to the accompaniment of service so inept that customers have been known to serve one another. Candelas 3280 M St. NW. 338-0900. L $3.95-$8.50, D $4.95-$9.95. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot in rear. Full bar service. Cantina d'Italia 1214-a 18th St. NW. 659-1830. L $7.75-$9.50, D $12-$17.50. L, D daily. Closed Sat, Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations required. Commercial parking lots or street. Full bar service.

Running a great restaurant is no secret. Just watch Joseph at Cantina d'Italia. It takes an owner on the premises, watching both the kitchen and the door, and caring supremely whether each diner enjoys the meal. It takes a commitment to fresh, seasonal, peak-perfect foods such as the summer's rockfish and branches of rosemary, and a commitment to cooking them so as to heighten their qualities, perhaps baking them in parchment to seal in juices and mingle flavors. It takes a zeal for devising and revising recipes and cooking methods to come up with basil-scented pasta doughs and pasta sauces rich and complex. Cantina is cozy and intimate, but the least stylish-looking northern Italian restaurant downtown. Its prices are high, and it does not deign to be open on Saturday night. Some of its dishes are excessively rich and heavy, buy many are pure treasure: remarkable stuffed clams; supreme chocolate espresso cheesecake; unique thin noodles with tomato-tinged clam and mussel sauce; extraordinary fish hot with fresh herbs or cold with a homemade garlic mayonnaise. Cantina d'Italia is very Italian yet very personal -- a place where the food and service can be the most sophisticated and memorable in town, yet you can be as comfortable in jeans as in a tux. Capitol Forum 941 North Capitol St. 789-0582. L, D $2.95-$4.959 L, D daily. Closed Sat, Sun. No credit cards. Reservations accepted. Street parking. Full bar service. No-smoking section. Captain White's 8123 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 589-6868. L $2.50-$4.50 0, D $4.75-$13.50. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking in rear. Full bar service. Children's prices. Capucine 1645 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 333-3323. L $4.75-$8.95, : $6.25-$9.45. L, D daily. Closed Mon. AE, CB, MC, V.Reservations accepted. Street parking. Beer and wine only. Carlos Gardel 1759 Columbia Rd. NW. 797-8704. L $1.25-$4.25, D $4.75-$12. L, D daily. Closed Tues. DC, MC, V. No reservations. Street parking. Full bar service. Carmack's 8401 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase. 652-6400. L $2.95-$6.95, D $6.50-$11.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. Mc, v. Reservations suggested. Free parking garage. Full bar service. Casba 2100 & St. NW. 463-6360. L $4.95-$5.95, D $5.95-$7.95. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. eFull bar service. Cedar Knoll Inn George Washington Memorial Pkwy., Mt. Vernon. 360-7880. L $2.25-$5.95, D $7.95-$13.95.Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. Chadwick's 3205 K St. NW. 333-2565. 203 Strand St., Alexandria. 836-4422. L $3.75-$4.75, D $3.75-$8.75. Open daily. AE, MC, V. No reservations. Parking lots across the street and street parking. Full bar service. Chardas 523 South 23rd St., Arlington. 920-7892. D $8.25-$16. D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in rear. cFull bar service. Children's prices. Charlies Georgetown 3223 K St. NW. 298-5985. L $4.25-$10.95, D $9.75-$15.95. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking. Full bar service. Chateau Gesundheit 7141 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. 657-8080. L $2.50-$7.95, D $6.95-$14.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. Ae, cb, mc, v. Reservations suggested. Free parking in adjacent lot at dinner. Full bar service. Children's prices. Chesapeake Bay Seafood Houses Check local phone directories for locations. L $1.99-$3.99, D $2.99-$9.99. Open daily. No credit cards. No reservations. Parking lot in front. Full bar service. Children's prices. No-smoking section. Chez Camille 1737 DeSales St. NW. 393-3330. L $4.50-$9.25, D $7.95-$14. L, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Commercial parking garage next door. Full bar service.

This highly personable and vaguely unkempt French restaurant is back to its old level of inconsistency, with bouillabaisse of exceptional flavor but with dry and mushy seafoods, choucroute well balanced in flavor but its meats ariid and chewy. some good, some bad, that's the way it goes. The menu is full of homey dishes like tongue and rabbit livers plus seasonal treats like crayfish, but the service is disorganized and neglected. The dining room is delightful when the tall windows are opened on a fall day. Chez Grand Mere 3057 M St. NW. 337-2436. L $4.25-$7.25, D $7.25-$9.50. L, D daily. Closed Mon. Ae, D, V. Reservations suggested. Commercial parking lot next door. Full bar service.

French restaurants in the middle range -- those with good food that make no attempt at grand cuisine and are modest in price -- are a shifting scene, one year satisfying and another year indiffent. The signs this year are good at Chez Grand Mere, its two small rooms sweetly decorated in Victorian lace and leaded glass, Tiffany lamps and distressed wood beams against brick. The food -- which includes dishes such as sausages with lentils, pot au feu and cassoulet -- is endearing if not spectacular. The rates are rough and homey, soups fragrant, main dishes bold with garlic and shallots. Hefty dishes are the most suitable to order -- the sausages or liver, for instance, but save room for a flaky apple tart and good espresso. Service is gregarious and hospitable. Particularly welcome for a casual little dinner is the good selection of half-bottle of wine. Chez Juliette 1047 West Broad St., Falls Church. 532-9290. L $3.50-$6, D $4.50-$7.50. L, D daily. Closed Mon. No credit cards. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service.

Entering through the kitchen and lunch counter, you are met by wonderful smells of unusual spices and charcoal-grilling. The dining room is small, the booths just large enough for four slim diners, the decorations limited to a few carnations, some cardboard cartons and a refrigerator with a few stray bottles of wine and beer. In other words, this is a typical inexpensive ethnic restaurant, in this case Vietnamese and French. The food tends to sound more exotic than it tastes, and the soups are pallid. The cha goi, Vietnamese spring rolls, however, are excellent, and you can do well with shrimp with a curry sauce that includes peanuts and coconut, or beef ground, firmly packed -- too firmly -- and wrapped in aromatic leaves before grilling. Sauces are light-textured, though some dises are greasy. This is a friendly little restaurant with a representative choice of Vietnamese foods and, for the less adventurous, French dishes and even omelets. Chez Maggy 26 N. Market St. (Rte. 355). Frederick, Md. 301/662-447. L $1.80-$5.50, D $8.50-$11.25. L, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Reservation suggested. Street parking. Full bar service. China Garden 1901 N. Moore St., Rosslyn. 525-5317. L $2.95-$6.50, D $4.25-$9.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Free parking in building at dinner. Full bar service.

China Garden serves fine Cantonese food, stretching from congee to seafood in fried taro baskets. Try it for dim sum; the list is long and a few of the options -- crisp crab boxes, steamed shrimp and pork dumplings, several kinds of chow foon -- are excellent. Pork bows are too sweet, turnip cakes too bland, but the endings -- coconut-stuffed sesame puffs or deep-fried ice cream with rum and chocolate sauce -- recoup any losses. On the lunch and dinner menus are exotic and familiar -- squid and shrimp, chili-black bean sauces and simple soy-ginger sauce -- with all the subtle contrasts of color, texture and flavor that characterize true Contonese food.Service is likely to be abrupt and indifferent, but the kitchen is what counts here. China Gourmet 9444 Arlington Blvd., Fairfax. 591-8380. L $3.25-$4.25, D $3.95-10.95. Open daily. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted for five or more only. Parking lot. Full bar service. China Inn 631 H St. NW. 824-0909. L $4.75-$18, D $5.75-$18. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Street parking. Full bar service.

One could hardly tell from the outside, but there is new life at the China Inn. Two dining rooms have been vividly redecorated in Easter bunny colors of purple, blue and pink, and the menu has been revamped to focus on a front page of house specialties which (unlike some of the inept dishes the menu) are quite grand. Their very names -- fish dipped in boiling water with spices, smoked lobster, pelican's nest -- are evocative. Some of the sauces are overstarched, but that is the only obvious flaw in dishes like while clams in shells with black bean sauce. Seafood dishes are the most intriguing; crystal shrimp are soaked in ice water to crisp them, then cooked just until translucent. The shrimp themselves are hugh and extremely fine. Smoked lobster, like smoked crabs, is stir-fried with ginger and scallion. Skip to the inside pages for appetizers, particularly for shrimp toast and cold sour cabbage flavored with chili peppers and sesame oil. The China Inn staff is trying hard, from the voluble owner to the waitresses to the kitchen. China Paradise 138-A Maple Ave. W., Vienna. 938-1557. L $2.50-$4, D $3.75-$8.50. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations required. Parking lot. Full bar service. Claude's 9021 Gaither Rd., Gaithersburg. 258-0405. L $3.50-$7.75, D $6.25-$10.95. L MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot in front. Full bar service. Children's prices.

At a glance it looks like a dim, sleekly appointed spaceship, its walls wearing giant metal sunburst sculptures, the ceiling lit from large recessed circles rimmed with hanging greenery. The seats are plush and comfortable; most intriguing are the curved booths set like caves in the walls with tube lights and spotlights on dimmers. This is a restaurant of solid culinary satisfaction rather than thrills. The menu runs the usual gamut of snails, pate, onion soup, coq au vin, veal francaise and steak au poive. Nothing sounds irresistible, although the list of daily specials ventures into several fresh fish. One is mainly attracted by the prices, many of them unusually reasonable. Among appetizers is perfectly ripe avocado et champignons vinaigrette, the avocado thinly sliced and fanned out, bordered by delicious marinated mushrooms and tomatoes. The smoked salmon is hard sliced and excellent, equivalent to what many restaurants charge double for. The standard onion soup is unexpectedly fine. The restaurant serves light snacks and full dinners, in quiet leisure or late night disco. Few other restaurants, particularly in the Maryland suburbs serve so much so well for so little. Clyde's/Georgetown 3236 M St. NW. 333-9180. L $3.95-$6.75, D $3.95-$12.50. Open daily. AE, MC, V. No reservations. Commercial parking lots. Full bar service. a

Clyde's is much more than a restaurant. It is several restaurants scattered from Columbia to Tysons Corner; it is a Washington institution and live museum of American pub culture; it is Georgetown's longest running mixer. And incidentally, at least at the original Georgetown location, it is incidental that people eat. Clyde's food is more famous than good. The bar is stacked the Clyde's canned chili; even as it comes from the kitchen it is too sweet, decent but not star quality. The legendary hamburgers are rarely terrific, though they could be if they didn't taste of burned grill scrapings. Some of the food is dismal, e.g., tough shrimp in limp crust, the whole to be dipped in mustardy orange marmalade; flabby fried potato slices. No matter. Clyde's is a series of attractive stage sets for playing out the Georgetown breakfast, the Georgetown brunch, the George-after-dark. Clyde's/Tysons Corner 8332 Leesburg Pike, Vienna. 734-1900. L $4.25-$6.95, D $4.75-$15.50. Open daily. AE, MC, V. No reservations. Parking lot. Full bar service. Company Inkwell 4109 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 525-42439 L $6-$10.50,, D $12.50-$25. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations required. Valet parking for dinner, garage in rear for lunch. Full bar service.

The dining room may be barn siding and horse collars, but the kitchen is classical French. The captains may be prone to practical jokes, but they are experts at flaming a duck or carving a rack of lamb. Company Inkwell serves food of very high caliber from a short menu, printed daily, of seasonal specials. And the attention in the kitchen is no less than in the dining room. But above all, it is a personal restaurant, where the maitre d'hotel remembers not only your name but also where you sat last year, and maybe 10 years ago when they opened. There are flaws: snails with too-strong, too-thick green peppercorn sauce, mussels with garlic butter but no character. But these fade in the light of fresh salmon poached to a melting softness, or pork loin balanced by pungent fresh tarragon. Fish is often a hightlight, and while the memu offers few surprises, familiar dishes are done uncommonly well. Comus Inn 23900 Old Hundred Rd., Comus, Md. 301/428-8593. L $4.40-$8.20, D $7.40-$18. Open daily. AE, CB, D, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot in front. Full bar service. Children's prices. Country Living Cafe 4849 1/2 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 966-8200. L, D $3.75-$7.95. L daily, D daily ex Sun. No credit cards. Reservations suggested for lunch, required for dinner. Parking in front. Full bar service at dinner, beer and wine only at lunch. Court of the Mandarins 1824 M St. NW. 223-6666. L $3.95-$6.50, D $4.95-$7.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily.Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking or adjacent garage. Full bar service. No-smoking section. The Cracked Claw 19815 Frederick Rd. Gaithersburg. 428-0588. L $1.79-$2.75, D 5.50-$12.95. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. Closed Mon. MC, V. No reservations. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. Crazy Horse Bar B-Q Ranch 6521 Riggs Rd., Hyattsville. 559-8558. L $2.15-$5.95, D $3.15-5.95. Open daily. No credit cards. No reservations. Parking lot. No alcoholic beverages. Crisfield 8012 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 589-1306. Sandwiches L only $2.25, platters L and D $7-$19.75. L, D daily. Closed Mon. No credit cards. No reservations. Street parking. Beer and wine only. Children's meals.

Nothing changes at Crisfield except the prices. And any Formica luncheonette where you wait in line to pay $11.50 for flounder stuffed with crabmeat is bound to be good. That flounder stuffed with creamy, slightly piquant lump crabmeat is nothing short of ideal, however, as is the Crisfield Special -- just the crabmeat mixture, and lots of it. The plain broiled fish is a tribute to the subtleties of plain cooking. The french fries have that nearly sweet taste of perfectly fried potatoes, the cole-slaw is fine. At Chrisfield you ought to know what to order, for the crab cakes are bready and heavily permeated with green pepper, and the broiled, baked or sauteed seafoods outshine any of the fried ones. The menu is full of don'ts -- no credit cards or checks, no separate checks, no sandwiches after 5 p.m., no substitutions, no half-orders. But if you know what you should do -- order the freshest and plainest Chesapeake Bay products, whether oysters, clams, crab or fish filets -- you won't be likely to care about the waiting line, the rush, the no-frills character of Crisfield. d.c. space 443 7th St. NW. 347-1445. L $2.75-$5, D $3.50-$7. L, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, MC, D, V. Reservations accepted only for six or more. Street parking. Full bar service. Da Vinci 2514L St., NW. 956-2209.L $5.95-$8.95, D $9.25-$14.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MV, V. Reservations required. Valet parking for dinner only. Full bar service.

One of the prettiest restaurants in town, with a floating stairway up the two-story dining room and contemporary stained glass tinting the old brick, Da Vinci serves some of the best pasta in town. Sample tortellini, agnolotti and cannelloni swoop on a combination plate, or sumptuous linguine with fresh clams and a healthy dash of red pepper. Main courses, too, are good, particularly the liver with sage or any veal dish. But service is indifferent unless you are a friend of the house, and little thought is given to the sensitivities of the diner. The menu, for example, describes a veal dish as "with special Italian cheese" rather than bothering to tell you that cheese is gorgonzola, a pungent blue that is not to everyone's liking. The vegetables, served family style, are sometimes in hunks so large that diners have to cut them up in order to give everyone a share. Wine service is neglectful. Da Vinci's kitchen is capable of producing Italian food as good as any in town, but alongside the two signs at the front door warning that proper dress is required, diners should tack up their own, noting that proper service is also requested. D'Angelos 13685 Connecticut Ave., Wheaton. 460-3500. L $2.25-$4, D $4.25-$11.95. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, CC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in shopping center lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. Danker's 1209 E St. NW. 628-2330. L $3.25-$8.95, D $5.95-$11.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service. Children's prices. Dominique 1900 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 452-126. L $5.95-$8.75, D $8.95-$15.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, CC, D, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking after 5:30 p.m. Full bar service.

Dominique is the Ted Turner of French restaurateurs. His restaurant doesn't stop at serving the usual wild game, but is likely to have rattlesnake one day, hippo another. Its pre- and post- theater dinners are a remarkable bargain. The restaurant has trout tanks and lobster tanks, offers limousine service and produces an annual Bastille Day race and festival. On a base of very good, highly professional French cuisine, Dominique's builds a lively atmosphere, more a party than any other French restaurant in town. On the menu -- which seems to have the bulk of a phone book -- are some excellent dishes and some not so good; the cream of crab soup is memorable, seafoods often excel, and the rack of lamb is impeccable. The more inventive a dish, the less likely its success. But the highlight of an evening at Dominique's might be the service, for the troop of young waiters and waitresses seem not only to know their job, but to enjoy it. Dynasty 6852 Old Dominion Dr., McLean. 790-1020. L $2.50-$4.75, D $3.25-$7.50. 6Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service. E.J. O'Riley's Pub 1122 18th st. (in the rear) NW. 872-1114. L,D $2.95-10.95. L, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking in commercial lots and on street. Full bar service. The Eatery White Flint Mall, Bethesda. 881-6330.L, D $1.10-6.95. Open daily. No credit cards. No reservations. Parking garage. No alcholic beverages. No-smoking section. Eddie Leonard's 7947 New Hampshire Ave. Langley Park. 439-5500. L $2.25-$4.95, D $4.95-$9.95. Open daily. MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking in shopping center lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. El Bandito 6113 Franconia Rd. Springfield. 922-9050. 5825 Seminary Rd. Bailey's Crossroads. 820-5775. L $2.60-$3.20, D $3.35-$5.75. L, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. No reservations.Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. El Caribe 3288 M St. NW. 338-3121. 1828 Columbia Rd. NW. 234-6969. L $3.25-$7.50, D $5.95-$10.50. L, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in rear for M St., street parking for Columbia rd. Full bar service.

Dishes ranging from Spanish to Ecuadorean are served in these charming little close-knit restaurants, with varying success. The path to take is an appetizer of mussels with tomato sauce and plenty of garlic of fried squid; the empanaditas are merely ordinary. Main courses give fuller reign to tastes: paella, pork with bananas, several tropical vegetables, rabbit in dark, rich sauce. Enchiladas are better ordered at a Mexican restaurant rather than here, and roast pork is likely to be fatty. Whatever you order, though, the accompanying black beans and rice will compensate for deficiencies. Guitar music in the evening turns El Caribe into a festival. El Palacio Check local phone directories for locations. L $4-$5, D $4-$7. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Beer and wine only. Children's prices. El Sombrero 5401 Lee Hwy. Arlington. 596-6500. D $4.75-$7.45. D daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. El Tio Pepe 2809 M St. NW. 337-0730. L $3.95-$10, D $7.50-$14.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations required. Parking in Colonial garage at dinner only. Full bar service. elan 2020 K St. NW. 466-5840. L $4.95-$8.95, D $7.95-$13.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking next door before 5 p.m., valet parking after 5 p.m. Full bar service. No-smoking section. Enriqueta's 2811 M St. NW. 338-7772. $4.25-$9.25, D $5.75-$9.50. L, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking or commercial lots. Beer and wine only. Children's prices.

Put away your preconceptions of Mexican restaurants when you visit Enriqueta's. Tacos and enchiladas form only a small part of the menu, which is an extensive list of brilliantly colored and subtly flavored dishes. Some dishes are hot, but more are piquant or aromatic or multi-flavored without being hot. Since the selection changes seasonally, it is tricky to try to recommend dishes, but one day's mussels in mustard sauce combined expected flavors in a hauntingly good dish. Even the traditional sauces -- dark, resonant mole and smooth, piquant salsa verde -- are unusually good. Some dishes miss, particularly mildly seasoned ones and those with too-sweet fruit sauces. Order the more highly seasoned dishes. Enriqueta's menu has its ups and downs, but always offers a wealth of choices. The close seating makes a hectic environment, but both the room and service are colorful and attractive. Eskimo Nell's 815 N. Stafford St. Arlington. 528-4300. L $1.75-$6, D $5.95-$24.95. L, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in front. Full bar service. Children's meals. Ethiopian 2000 S St. NW. 797-7640. L, D $5.50-$5. Open daily. No credit cards. Reseravations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. Evans Farm Inn 1696 Chain Bridge Rd. McLean. 356-8000. L $3.75-$5.95, D $6.50-$12.50. Open daily. AE, DC, MC V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. F. Scott's 1232 36th St. NW. 965-1789. D $6.75-$16.75. D daily. Ae, cb, d, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking. Full bar service. Falls Landing 774 Walker Rd., Great Falls, Va. 759-4650. L, D $3-$8.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Mon. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service. Fiddlers 4340 Connecticut Ave. NW. 362-6515. L $3.45-$4.95, D $3.45-$9.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted for eight or more only. Parking in buildng. Full bar service. Children's prices. Fio's The Woodner, 3636 16th St. NW. 667-3040. L $3-$6, D $3-$7.50. L, D daily. Closed Mon. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted for five or more only. Parking in building garage. Full bar service. Children's prices.

It is just an enormous old apartment house coffee shop with travel posters and vinyl tablecloths, but Fio's has real southern Italian cooking at coffee-shop prices. The waitress recites a long list of specials, from softshell crabs in season (very good) to salmon (fair) to marinated rabbit (powerfully marinated) to roast or sauteed veal. Portions are gigantic, except for extravagant ingredients like veal -- but what would you expect for $5 veal? Order the vegetables, stuffed or sauteed. And, while the pastas are not likely to be homemade, they are cooked al dente and sauced with wonderful pungent tomato sauce. The pizza -- white or red -- is crusty, chewy, as good as any south of Baltimore. Take the family and order family-size portions of meat or seafood platters, pizza and pasta and a carafe of wine. And wonder how they do it for the price. The Fishery 5511 Connecticut Ave. NW.363-2144. L $5.50-$9.95, D $8.95-$14.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. No reservations. Parking in rear. Full bar service. Children's meals.

The Fishery has quickly become a sought-after eating place adorned with long necklaces of prospective diners awaiting tables. No wonder. Washington needs more serious seafood restaurants that serve really fresh fish and cook it properly. Connected to a seafood market, The Fishery gets the best. Ordering the simplest of dishes will prove that. Oysters are briny and plump. Fried clams are lightly breaded and superbly juicy. Fish filets are moist and, thankfully, unadorned. More intricate dishes -- crab cakes, seafood Norfolk -- are, to be picky, apt to be flawed by too much green pepper or too much butter or too much something. Clam clhowder is unorthodox, white but not creamy, heavily herbed, very good if you are not a traditionalist. Vegetables are excellent, from sprightly coleslaw and tossed salad with zingy dressing to delicious cottage fries and dilled carrots. The variety of house wines and beers complement the menu, and desserts, especially the chocolate walnut cake, are worth the splurge. Fish of this quality does not come cheap, but the expense will be bearable if you concentrate on local seafoods and order them simply broiled or fried.Besides good food, the nautical whimsies are good-natured and the waitresses are the wonderful tough-and-cheerful sort that, if they were not so young, would rival Boston's Durgin Park waitress wonders. Flight Table 10108 Greenbelt Rd., Lanham. 794-8818. L $1.75-$4.15, D $3.50-$12.95. Open daily. MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. No-smoking section. Foggy Bottom Cafe The River Inn, 924 25th St. NW. 338-8707. L $3.50-$6.50, D $4.25-$12.50. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service.

Now that it has a liquor license, Foggy Bottom Cafe has matured into a bright, tasteful gathering place for the neighborhood and for diners on their way to or from the Kennedy Center. Contemporary in decor and menu concept, it serves fresh and inventive food, a smattering of light and serious dishes from chicken Caesar salad and hamburger on French bread to scallop pot pie and calf's liver with watercress-mustard saute. The dozen dishes run the gamut from Mideast (humos, a delicious rendition) to Deep South (barbecued spare-ribs, oversweetened but not bad). The more elaborate dishes taste as if the cook were blindly following recipes, adding too much herb or not controlling the frying temperature, but the ingredients are good, and the lemony cheesecake and extraordinarily good pecan pie are obviously made by skilled hands. Service may require a bit of nudging, but is innately cheerful. Food For Thought 1738 Connecticut Ave. NW. 767-1095. L $2.25-$3.50, D $2.75-$4.25. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. No credit cards. No reservations. Parking lots nearby. Full bar service. No-smoking section. Frascati 4806 Rugby Ave., Bethesda. 652-9514. L $3-$4.50, D $5.50-$7.70. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. Closed Mon. AE. Reservations suggested. Parking across the street. Beer and wine only. Fuji 3299 M St. NW. 338-4484. L $3-$12.50, D $4.50-$12.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily.Closed Sun. AE, MC V. Reservations suggested. Parking lots nearby. Full bar service. G. D. Graffiti 1321 Rockville Pike, Rockville, 424-4091. D $6.95-$13.95. D daily. MC, V. No reservations. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. No-smoking section. Gadsby's Tavern 138 N. Royal St., Alexandria. 548-1288. L $4.25-$8.75, D $8.75-$12. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking or garage next door. Full bar service. Children's prices. Gangplank 600 Water St. SW. 554-5000. L $4.50-$6.75, D $8-$17. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations required. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. Genji 2816 Graham Rd., Falls Church. 573-0112. L $3.95-$5.50, D $5.25-$9.95. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. Closed Mon. MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in shopping center lot. Full bar service. Geppetto 2917 M St. NW. 333-2602. L, D $4-$10. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, D, MC, V. No reservations. Parking lots nearby. Full bar service. Geranio 724 King St., Alexandria. 548-0088. L $4.95-$6.75, D $8.25- $13.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, V. Reservations required. Free parking in Alfred St. lot for dinner. Full bar service.

Some days, Geranio is worth circling the beltway for, and other days it is not worth more than a walk around the block. It is always, however, a pretty little Italian restaurant, white with touches of pink, and lovely, flossy little arrangements of flowers on the table. The daily specials are usually the best dishes to order, for they use the season's first basil for pesto and the freshest fish for cold marinated appetizers, and on occasion offer inventions like the quail with fruit and sage stuffing and mushroom sauce. But Geranio's pastas are not the lightest, their fillings not the most pungent. Lamb has been badly trimmed and smothered in thick unsavory sauce. Wonderful or just fair, the meal ends agreeably with perky, crisp berry tarts. Germaine's 2400 Wisconsin Ave., NW. 965-1185. L $4.25-$7.50, d $7-$19. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested Street parking. Full bar service.

A new mold for Oriental restaurants has been cast by Germaine's. The surroundings are sedate, tasteful, an elegant collation of heavily textured fabric walls, plants and strikingly beautiful photographs.The food, too, is unusual, tasteful and elegant, a changing repertioire of dishes mostly Vietnamese but from all of Asia, with always a few exciting new inventions. Draw your orders particularly from the list of daily specials and hope they include Germaine's new glazed chicken with carmel sauce.Even if it is not on the menu, ask for pine cone fish, scored and lightly fried filet of sea trout. And include something from the charcoal grill: shrimp sates, lemon grass spareribs, Korean-style short ribs. Some simple names -- seafood combination -- hide extraordinary dishes. Cold and hot appetizers are generally intriguing, notably shrimp cakes with shredded sweet potatoes. Germaine's serves delicate portions, but stints not at all on quality. Even the wine list is particularly well chosen. No wonder Germaine's has become a Washington landmark. giorgios 1247 20th St. NW. 659-2388. L, D $1.50-$4.95. Open daily. No reservations. Street parking. Beer and wine only. Goldon Booeymonger 1701 20th St. NW. 234-1252. L $2.75-$5.25, D $4.95-$11.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted for parties of seven or more only. Parking in rear. Full bar service. Golden Table 528 23rd St. NW. 293-1272. L $4.85-$7.75, D $7.95-$12.95. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in building. Full bar service. Children's prices. Golden Temple Conscious Cookery 1521 Connecticut Ave. NW. 234-9134. L $2.95-$5.10, D $4.95-$7.95. Open dailey. AE, CC, D, MC, V. No reservations. Street parking. No alcoholic beverages. No smoking.

Serenity has turned to slugishness at Golden Temple Conscious Cookery, and the last two words should be wiped from the name. This vegetarian restaurant has expanded by removing dividers that once lent privacy and has added an outdoor cafe. It promotes a salad bar at dinner -- a good one, with the same old wonderful sesame-lemon and yogurt-herb dressings -- plus a potato bar that is an insult of overcooked potato and soupy, sloppy sauces. On the dinner menu, anonymous mixtures and mismatched combinations range from broccoli with apples, walnuts and mushrooms under a veil of cheese at an overpriced $7 to mock quiche, lasagna, curry and Mexican casserole. Service is dawdling and indifferent to complaints; when something goes wrong, from acrid yogi tea to bitter carob brownie, the response is a shrug. Except for the salad bar, the Golden Temple is a textbook case of a very good restaurant being allowed slip into ruin. Golden Wagon 6408 Kenilworth Ave. Riverdale. 277-7174. L $3.25-$4.35, D $4.25-$20. Open daily. AE, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Beer and wine only. Children's prices. Greek Village 1712 Connecticut Ave. NW. 232-4768. L $1.75-$5.25, D $1.95-$6.95. Open daily. AE, C, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot next door. Full bar service. Gusti's 1837 M St. NW. 331-9444. L $2.25-$4.95, D $3.25-$8.25. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Full bar service. Hamburger Hamlet 10400 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda. 5225 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 244-2037.L, D $2.95-$8.50. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. No reservations. Discount parking in garage. Full bar service. No-smoking section. Harvey's 1001 18th St. NW. 833-1858. L $4.50-$8.85, D $9.75-$15.75. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily.AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valent parking for dinner. Full bar service.

Here is a prescription for enjoying the oldest restaurant in Washington, but follow the directions carefully. You can start with lobster bisque or clams casino; other soups can taste canned-bland, even if they are larded with plenty of fresh clams or crab, and my last oysters were flabby and small. Next, a fish filet or whole broiled flounder, either plain or with good lump crabmeat. The big disappointment at Harvey's is likely to be dishes with lobster in them, so stick to crab. Vegetables are interesting choices but variable productions, the zucchini a good bet. And, for dessert, strawberry shortcake is unusual and creamy. Harvey's also serves excellent drinks, and has a wine list both extensive and educational, heavily weighed towards California, though the cellar does not live up to the list. This dim, clubby cave below the street is lush and comfortable, but the best service is reserved for regulars, and newcomers may get short shrift. In all, Harvey's seems tired in the face of energetic new seafood restaruants in town. Harvey's 15201 Shady Grove Rd., Rockville. 258-9670. L $4.50-$8.75, D $8.75-$14.75. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily, Closed Sun. Ae, cb, d, mc, V. Reservations suggested.Parking lot. Full bar service. Henry Africa 607 King St., Alexandria. 549-4010. L $3.25-$8.50, D $8.90-$14.80. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Mon. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service. Hogate's 9th St. and Maine Ave. SW. 484-6300. L $3.25-$5.25, D $5.25-$17.95. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. No reservations. Underground parking. Full bar service. Children's prices. House of Chinese Gourmet 1485 Rockville Pike., Rockville. 984-9440. L $2.95-$7.95, D $2.95-$19.95. Open daily. Reservations suggested. Parking in front and rear. Full bar service. No-smoking section. House of Hunan 1900 K St., NW. 293-9111. L $4.65-$5.95, D $5.50-$16.95. L, D daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted for dinner, accepted only for parties of 10 or more for lunch. Valet parking for dinner. Full bar service.

House of Hunan is an uncommon Fhinese restaurant, uncommonly good, uncommonly elegant, with an array of dishes and special touches found nowhere else in Washington. The dining rooms are lovely, with rainbows of silk waving from the ceiling downstairs, salmon colored banquettes against silvery gray walls upstairs. The kitchen's unique character blooms at dinner. Platters are handsomely decorated. Waiters will serve each diner if you wish.The offer perfumed hot cloths after dinner. As for what to order, start at the beginning and work your way through, emphasizing appetizers and chef's suggestions. Most unusual among the appetizers are crispy shrimp balls and vegetable curl, the smoky diced bits to be wrapped in letturce. Unforgettable is the crisp walnut delight, the large halved nuts fried in a thin, faintly sweet glaze. If you judge the restaurant by one dish, let it be a soup called minced squab and scallops in a bamboo container. Main courses cover five pages, but concentrate on the first, where you will find crisp whole fish Hunan style, orange beef, honeyed ham. This is a restaurant where every dinner can turn into an impromptu banquet. Hugo's Hyatt Regency Hotel, 400 New Jersey Ave. NW. 737-12334. D $11.75-$18.75. D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations required. Valet parking. Full bar service. No-smoking section. Hu Nan 4660 Kenmore Ave., Alexandria. 370-0060. L $2.25-$3.95, D $4.25-$6.95. Open daily. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. Hunan Garden 2104 Viers Mill Rd., Rockville. 340-6880. L $2.25-$3.95, D $4-$179 Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking in shopping center lot. Full bar service. Hunan of Capitol Hill 201 D St. NE. 544-0102. L $3.95-$4.50, D $4.25-$8.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted, only for eight or more at lunch. Street parking. Full bar service.

What matters more than the fact that this restaurant calls itself Hunanese is that it is a very good Chinese restaurant. Its high intentions are apparent from the start, from the curved brick stairway under a grand canopy. Inside, carpet and muted lighting set a dignified mood, reinforced by staff in black tie. Few places on Capitol Hill, and fewer of Washington's Chinese restauurants, are so serene. Among the appetizerss, the standards -- egg rolls, spare ribs and the like -- are dismal renditions, but the fried meat dumplings are outstanding and bon bon chicken is excellent. One good test of a Chinese restaurant is its hot-and-sour soup; Hunan passes with honors. Another significant test is shrimp, and again Hunan's score is high. The whole fish with black bean sauce is a good buy, fried lightly and carefully, and seasoned with fire and flair. The Hunan lamb and beef offer a brilliant interplay of pepper, vinegar and soy with a touch of sweetness that is uniquely Hunanese. Barring my encounters with indifferent appetizers and luncheon specials that were steamtable mush, the food is fine. Hunan Szechuan Village 4701 Columbia Pike., Arlington. 979-2229. L $2.50-$4.25, D $4.25-$9.50. L daily ex Sun, D daily. Closed Mon. Mc, v. Reservations accepted. Parking in rear. Full bar service. II Nido 4712 Wisconsin Ave. NW 363-2672. L $3.95-$8.50, D $5.75-$11. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking on weekends, street parking during week. Full bar service.

What is a nice little Italian restaurant like this doing overcooking its fritto misto and turning its cheese sauce into mock Velveeta? II Nido is handsome as an Italian film star and propped with interesting dishes like fregnacce and other handmade pastas. It is too small to justify lethargic, surly service such as I found. And the kitchen can produce superb fried foods, fine light sauces and aromatic pasta fillings, so I cannot understand why it settles for pallid sauces and pasty-coated veal with sludgy lemon sauce or vegetables cooked to a mush. One of the most attractive and ambitious Italian restaurants in town has succumbed to lassitude. Imperial Garden Tysons Corner Shopping Center. 893-6366. L $3.85-$7.25, D $5.50-$9.90. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted, suggested on weekends. Parking lot. Beer and wine only. *tImperial Garden has turned Vietnamese -- sort of. This grandiose red and gold shopping center Chinese restaurant has benefited from the conversion, for the food is now fresh and carefully cooked, served in generous portions. But the menu is still nearly all Chinese, except for a few Vietnamese appetizers. Try them. The cha gio are fine peppery meat-and-crab stuffed rice paper rolls, and the grilled beef with lemon grass is perfumed, juicy skewered bits. The Chinese food is attractive and well-prepared, though it tends to be bland and oversauced. But if you ignore the flossy touches, such as cloying Polynesian drinks, and approach this as a hospitable neighborhood Chinese restaurant with a Vietnamese accent, you will find it worth remembering when you are around Tysons Corner. Imperial House 1801 K St. NW. 763-6553. L $3.95-$5.50, D $4-$19. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Free parking after 6 p.m. at 18th & M Sts. garage. Full bar service. The Inn Rte. 7, Purcellville, Va. 703/338-6088. L $3.50-$5.15, D $8.65-$12. L, D daily. Closed Tues. AE, CB, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. The Inn at Little Washington Washington, Va. 703/675-3800. D $9.95-$14.95. D daily. Closed Mon, Tues. MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Beer and wine only; liquor license pending. Children's prices. Intermission White Flint Mall, Rockville. 881-3360. L $2.25-$4.50, D $5.50-$9.50. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking garage at mall. Full bar service. Children's prices. Intrigue 824 New Hampshire Ave. NW. 333-2266. L $3.95-$8.25, D $8.95-$14.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. Ae, d, mc, v. Reservations suggested. Valet parking. Full bar service. Children's prices.

The Intrigue is not really all that intriguing, but it is a decent restaurant close to the Kennedy Center, a category in short supply. Service swings wildly from a great show of pulling out your chair to surly response to requests. A comment to a waiter that he brought the wrong vintage of wine was answered with, "Vintages don't matter." Unfortunately, the kitchen also thinks that some important qualities don't matter. Mushroom soup has tasted like gray dishwater, rockfish has been overcooked to cryness, and a very pretty salad has been drowned in sweet dressing with chemical undertones. You might wonder how this can be considered a decent restaurant, unless you were clever enough to order shrimp de jonghe, jumbo shrimp firm and moist, in a garlic and shallot flecked butter sauce. You might wish there were more than three shrimp, but you must admit they are good. Vegetables (which do not, by the way, accompany the shrimp) are also good, whether fresh green beans or potato baked with a sprinkle of salt and no foil wrapper. Intrigue has a small menu, just a few fish, three veals and four steaks. But it emphasizes light suppers for after the theater. James III 12000 Old Georgetown Rd., Rockville. 881-1100. L $4.25-$8.95, D $8.95-$16.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. Ae, cb, d, mc, v. Reservations suggested. Valet parking. Full bar service. Jean-Louis The Watergate Hotel, 2650 Virginia Ave., NW. 337-7750. D (fixed price) $25, $30, $40 or $60. D daily. Closed Sunday. Ae, cb, d, mc, v. Reservations required. Valet parking. Full bar service.

It remains intact after fears of losing the chef to the tug of France, this brilliant little restaurant hidden under the Watergate. Constantly inventing nouvelle cuisine with American ingredients, Jean-Louis has been teaming cold carrot soup with a dollop of tomato sherbet, purslane with batons of barely cooked salmon, Maine lobster with chopped fresh basil. Even his early dishes have improved, notably the thin, rare slices of duck breast with a dark, tart lime sauce. The menu divides into fixed-price dinners of $25, $30, $40, and $60, plus a few a la carte items. Portions are small, the better to present them as works of art. And the superb brioche with anchovy butter and desserts such as creamy, puckery lemon tart on a paper-thin crunch of shell fill remaining crevices. The small room, wrapped in multitoned orange cloth panels and mirrors, allows for spacious tables and room for privacy. And the service is as elegant as the food. Even the wine list has become better organized, broader, priced high but not outragious. This is a French restaurant that establishes Washington in the big leagues. Jean-Pierre 1835 K St. NW. 466-2022. L $6.50-$9.75, D $10.75-$19.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations required. Free parking in garage next door. Full bar service.

Much has improved at Jean-Pierre in the past year, for it has become a handsome restaurant, its appearance worthy of its kitchen. Soft, neutral wall coverings and dark mirrored columns and room divider have turned the trick. The menu continues as a deft mix of standards and the unexpected -- red snapper with marrow and red wine, rillettes of smoked and fresh salmon, crayfish in cream sauce with orange. Some of the dishes are superb, the crusty lamb filet with brown sauce heavily scented by garlic, the crayfish or fresh shrimp in chive cream. Others are good but without special character -- the snapper too chewy, the rillettes bland, the veal excessively pounded, the raspberry souffle lacking perfume. But Washington's French restaurants are famous for their inconsistency, and Jean-Pierre reaches excellence as often as any except perhaps the top three, and serves with as much suave expertise as any, bar none. Joe and Mo's 1211 Connecticut Ave. NW. 659-1211. L $4.25-$10, D $10.50-$18.50. D, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations required. Valet parking after 6:30 p.m. Full bar service.

The ideal meal at Joe and Mo's is all beef: tartar steak (share a portion as an appetizer) and roast beef, the fullest flavored prime rib in town, more than an inch thick, tender, moist and juicy, permeated with rosemary, basil and garlic. Eat plenty of rough, chewy rye and raisin pumpernickel bread. Split a half-order of onion rings. That's it, the best -- unless you substitute for the roast beef a crusty rare sirloin or whatever seasonal fish is available, preferably stuffed with Dungeness crab. All this in blue velvet and leather banquettes, under chandeliers and tapestries, with brash and clever waiters who also do their job well. The rest is slippery ground, for the vichyssoise tastes only of starch, the marinated seafood is an embarrassment of chewiness, the creamed spinach tastes like imitation canned, and the swordfish has been repeatedly overcooked. Even Joe and Mo's famed potato pancakes have grown overweight and soggy. Joe and Mo's does a few things very well. And the staf does sing a rousing version of "Happy Birthday." Jonah's Oyster Kitchen Hyatt Regency Hotel, 400 New Jersey Ave. NW. 737-1234 L $4.95-$8.95, D $9.50-$14.50. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. Ae, cb, d, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking. Full bar service. No-smoking section. J. R.'s Steak House 9401 Lee Hwy., Fairfax. 597-8447. D $6.50-$14.95. D daily. Closed Mon. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Full bar service. mChildren's prices. 8130 Watson St., Tysons Corner. 893-3390. L $3.50-$8.25, D $6.50-$14.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices.

The search for the great unpretentious steak house goes on, but leaves J. R.'s behind. Despite the menu's spiel about its carefully selected and naturally aged beef, the meat on the plate is just ordinary, the roast beef average in tenderness and flavor, overcooked; and the house specialty of marinated sirloin tough and vinegary, though properly seared and cooked rare. Dim, baronial Western as suburban steakhouses tend to be, J. R.'s is probably best known for its 28-item salad bar, which is generous and kept refreshed, though with no surprises but the inferiority of its dressings. The best surprises at J. R.'s are the crab-stuffed mushroom appetizer and the enormous a la caret baked potato without foil wrapping. The wine list is superior to the food list, and the California entries are attractively priced. sGiven that the salad bar is one of J. R's assets, keep in mind that the Tysons Corner branch has no salad bar, but serves "selections" from its salad bar instead. Kabul Caravan 1725 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 522-8394. L $3.75-$4.95, 5 $5.85-$9.50. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in front. Full bar service. Kalorama Cafe 2228 18th St. NW. 667-1022. L $1.50-$3.50, D $5.50-$6.95. L daily, D daily ex Sun. Closed Mon. No credit cards. Reservations accepted. Street parking. Beer and wine only. Kings Landing 121 S. Union St., Alexandria. 836-7010. L $4.25-$9.95, D $9.95-$15.95. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lots next door and across the street. Full bar service. Kramerbooks & afterwords Brasserie 1912 I St. NW. 466-3111. L, D $3.50-$10.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily ex Sun. AE, MC, V. No reservations. Parking in building or street. Full bar service.

To your right is a bar bathed in a golden glow of blond wood and hanging glasswar. Straight ahead is the book section, as tempting to a reader as any bakery display case. And nearly surrounding you are tiny marble tables set with bottles holding daisies and readers absorbed in books and salads, surrounded by a haze of chatter. In the evenings, canned jazz is playing, or sometimes live guitar. In warm weather the tables spill over to an outdoor cafe. Food, as you have probably guessed, is not central, but is one of those minor details that is handled well and thus plays an important role in this success story. The grilled meats -- lamb chops, pork chops, hamburgers -- are pretty good, but most of the menu is lighter fare, e.g., large, colorful salads, creamy quiches. The best details are the fresh orange juice or espresso over the morning paper, a soup or pastry break to finish your last chapter. Kramerbooks brasserie is an all-day place, a kind of Reader's Digest Condensed Books version of the Champs Elysees. Kramerbooks & afterwords Cafe 1517 Connecticut Ave. NW. 387-1462. L $2.95-$5.95, D $2.95-$6.95. Open daily. No credit cards. No reservations. Street parking. Full bar service. Kushner's 8523 Piney Branch Rd., Silver Spring. 589-0048. L $2.25-$3.95, D $5.85-$14.75. L, D daily. Closed Mon. No credit cards. No reseravations. Parking in front.full bar service. Children's prices. La Brasserie 239 Massachusetts Ave. NE. 546-9154. L $4.50-$6.75, D $4.50-$12.25. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service.

In its second year, this lively bright, casual French restaurant is erratic but worth consideration. The prices are its most erratic characteristic; asparagus vinaigrette and smoked salmon have been priced higher than at some of the city's grande luxe restaurants, while many main dishes are under $5. A star on the menu is la bourride, a creamy, potent fish soup under a puff pastry crust. Beyond that are light main dishes -- quiches, eggs, salads, and a couple of undistinguished vegetable and fish casseroles. The salmon mousse with green peppercorns is suave and spicy, a pleasant light main course. Most interesting, though, are the daily specials, from simle breast of chicken with mustard to exotic snails wrapped in puff pastry. Much attention on the menu and in the dining room is paid to pastries and creme brulee, which are very good, though less remarkable than in the restaurant's early days. A brisk, cheerful place to eat, La Brasserie allows the option of eating lightly or substantially, and inexpensively if you are careful. La Fonda 1639 R St. NW. 232-6965. L $4.50-$5.95, D $5.95-$9.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Street parking. Full bar service. No-smoking section.

Every couple of years, it seems, La Fonda comes up with a redecoration scheme; this year's is tile. The room has been redone in bright glazed tiles on a white tile background, floors and walls, and the effect is at least startling. The food, however, remains best for a snack or light meal, Mexican food that is standard quality, or at least sinks to standard in its reheating a lunchtime. Most of the menu is enchiladas, though there are some good soups, a mole that needs mellowing and a few other beef and chicken dishes. Best of the menu, though, are appetizers, the tiny fried spicy turnovers, empanaditas, and an attractive do-it-yourself individual taco bar known as antojitos de Montezuma. La Fourchette 2429 18th St. NW. 332-8077. L $3.50-$9.50, D $6.50-$9.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service.

The third-year blues have hit La Fourchette. This moderately priced French bistro is sweeter looking than ever, with a mural covering one wall and old brick to contrast, a pressed tin ceiling and church pew banquettes. And the hostess still keeps a maternal eye on your table. But nobody is keeping a careful eye on the ingredients, for the scallops have been bitterly fishy, the pork dark and strong. The quiches have been soggy and the spinach long wilted. You can put together a reasonable meal with good homemade soup and a pastry-crushed entree or salad. And dessert crepes or Grand Marnier-soaked oranges make wonderful bargain-priced endings. The few wines also are extremely good values. But the daily specials, appealing as they sound, are creeping up in price and down in quality. La Mancha 5515 Cherokee Ave., Alexandria. 354-2120. L $2.50-$3.25, D $7.50-$9. L daily ex Sat, D daily. MC, V. Reservations accpted. Parking lot. Full bar service. La Maree 1919 I St. NW. 659-4447. L $5.25-$8.50, D $9.25-$18.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Valet parking. Full bar service.

Washington's French restaurants tend to look significant, with canopies and pompous entrances. La Maree's more modest self-introduction leaves room for unexpected pleasures. The brown and beige upstairs and downstairs rooms are close and cozy rather than grand, and the service is quietly competent. Although the name suggests the restaurant's specialization in seafood, there are meats on the menu. But even the veal might be sauced with shrimp-garnished nantua. The daily specials are imaginative -- perhaps a flounder stuffed with fish mousse or a grandly decorated cold lobster. Begin, if it is available, with a pate of fish, beautifully ribboned with pink salmon and green spinach, perhaps with a heart of white fish and green avocado. Beyond that, simple sauteed fish are expertly cooked, perhaps a trout with crisp skin and moist flesh. Careful attention shows in the quality of salad greens and small details, though overall the food tends to be good rather than memorable. An exception is dessert, for the pastries, particularly the liqueur-soaked tortes, are elaborate and highly professional. La Miche 7905 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda. 986-0707. L $6-$9, D $9.75-$13. L daily ex Sat, Sun, Mon, D daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted for dinner only. Street parking. Full bar service.

La Miche has expanded and is suffering from growing pains, though it is still the best French restaurant I have found in the Maryland suburbs. The charming waitresses have forgotten their expertise and have become harried and forgetful. The menu has remained small and interesting -- with oysters poached in orange butter and scallops or chicken livers served in boats of croissant or brioche as appetizers, and one-person souffles available for dessert -- and a mimeographed (thank goodness) list of appealing daily specials is included. One night the specials alone included two kinds of crayfish, lamb with ginger, veal with cepes, lotte with tarragon and softshell crabs. But the execution of the dishes ranges from excellent -- moist crayfish in impeccable white butter sauce, oysters fried on skewers and bedded on spinach, thick veal medallions with fleshy, woodsy mushrooms -- to fishy, oversalted salmon terrine that should have been relegated to the cats. Overambition shows in the crude rabbits pate en croute; on the standing menu, you are safest ordering the poached oysters as appetizer, perhaps the tangy beef sauteed with vinegar as main course. And for dessert, fry a citrus souffle or ripe fresh fruits in whipped cream rather than a less competent pastry. La Pagode 924 W. Broad St., Falls Church. 534-0004. L $1.95-$5.75, D $2.95-$5.75. Open daily. MC, V.Reservations suggested. Parking in rear. Beer and wine only. Children's prices. La Ruche of Georgetown 1039 31st St., NW. 965-2684. L $3.25-$5.95, D $3.25-$7.25. Open daily. MC, V. No reservations. Street parking and commercial lots. Beer and wine only. No-smoking section.

La Ruche's formula still works well, despite the opening o branches, moving of site, revisions of staff and heavy competition from newer French cafes. The Georgetown branch is cluttered with tile tables in the garden-bright dining room. Service depends on the patience of the diners; it seems as if it is the first day on the job for every one of the smiling waitresses. The focal point of the menu is the daily specials, most around $4 or $5 for large portions of good, simple French cooking. The softshell crabs earlier in the season were as good as anywhere twice the price. And the crabmeat quiche is wll packed with crab, a grand ob when the reheating has been careful. At La Ruche, expect the pate to be like meat loaf and all the sophistication to be focused in the pastry case, which displays extravagances like fresh blackberry tarts and chocolate almond meringue tortes layered with whipped cream. A magazine, a kir, the fish of the day and a flaky browned fruit tart are the makings of a delightful $10 vacation from Georgetown shopping. La Ruche of White Flint White Flint Mall (third floor), Rockville. 468-1122. L, D daily. Closed Sun. MC, V. No reservations. Mall parking.Full bar service.

If the Eatery makes you jittery, aim for White Flint's Cafe La Ruche, as busy and as enticing as Bloomingdale's. Sit in the country-French-tinted inside cafe or at the "outdoor" mall tables, first casing the pastry case for dessert and take-homes. Prices are modest for hot daily specials and quiches, eggs and light entrees. It would be an improvement to add small, appetizer-priced portions o quiches and pates, particularly since the quiche -- high, fragile custard with a golden surface and shimmery texture -- is worthy of your special attention. Soups are fine, and the "egg souffle florentine" is an unusual slice of souffle on spinach and mushrooms with a rich, nutmeg-scented cheese sauce. La Ruche maintains a good collection of light dishes.And if the daily specials are sometimes not very special, you can usually count on fresh vegetables to enhance them, and further do so with a bottle of reasonably priced wine. La Scala 4915 Silver Hill Rd., Suitland. 568-3400. L $3.25-$5, D $5-$9. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. MC, V. Reservations accepted for six or more only. Parking lot in front. Full bar service. Children's meals. No-smoking section.

Cheek by jowl to McDonald's on a fast-food highway is a lone white house that encloses an Italian restaurant of character, the kind that, small as it is, uses 20 pounds of garlic a week and butchers its own veal. La Scala serves down-to-earth Italian food at prices to match, but it is real cooking of real food, with real Italian sensibility. The fried mozzarella is superlative, light and crisp and oozing cheese. Sometimes fresh shellfish emerges in a creamy garlic sauce as a "special apetizer." Pasta sauces have nothing subtle about them, and veal scallopine are overdosed with sweet marsala or lemon. But dishes that are meant to be robust -- chicken cacciatore, braciole, herbed roast veal -- are as good as Washington has to offer. Wash them down with bargain-priced Italian wines, finish with eggy golden homemade tortoni and figure that what you spent in gas to find the place was saved in the price of the veal. Two cautions: The coffee isn't even strong enough to tint a tablecloth, and throughout dinner you might want to look out for slices of those 20 pounds of garlic. Lake Anne Inn 1617 Washington Plaza, Reston. 171-4212. L $2.95-$5.75, D $5.45-12.50. Open dialy. AE, D, V. Reservations suggested. Parking next door. Full bar service. Children's prices. L'Alouette 2045 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 525-1750. L $3.50-$8.25, D $6.25-$13.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. E, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in rear. Full bar service. Landini Brothers 115 King St., Alexandria. 836-8404. L $2.25-$5.95, D $6.50-$12.95. L, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking and commercial lots. Full bar service.

Old brick and heavy beams are apparently the fashion in Italian restaurants today, and Landini Brothers has carried out the mode beautifully, adding a slate floor and fireplace. This is a homestyle restaurant, with waiters that are likely to befriend you, bone your fish and advise you how to reheat the leftovers they have insisted on wrapping. The chef bakes his own excellant Italian bread. He boldly seasons with red and black pepper, profusely sprinkles olive oil and lemon. If the noodles are too thick and the musels dry, they are minor notes in a generally satisfying meal. Landini Brothers is a restaurant that grows on you, even during the meal. You may start with asparagus dried out in the reheating, but you are likely to have traded recipes with one of the owners by the end, after eating too much of his homemade bread, and still be tempted to end with a marvelous zucotto. Even the expresso is as good as you are likely to make at home. Lang Lin 1331 University Blvd. E., Landley Park. 434-0515. L $2-$2.75, D $3-$7. L, D daily. Closed Mon. No credit cards. Reservations accepted. Parking in front. No alcoholic beverages. L'Auberge Chez Francois 332 Springvale Rd., Great Falls, Va. 759-3800. D $12.95-$15.65. D daily. Closed Mon. AE, MC, V. Reservations required. Parking lot. Full bar service.

Part of the magic may be having to reserve two weeks to the day in advance, the reconfirming the day before and the long drive down a winding wooded road, but there is no doubt that L'Auberge Chez Francois is a special place when you get there. One introduction to this white-washed, beamed and timbered inn is a good look at the impressive kitchen cadre through a front window. Indside, the dessert table and cheese trays are iordinately enticing. The flowered tablecloths, green-stemmed wine glasses, folk art and pottery on the walls reinforce the magical quality. There is competent service and an occasional hug from the mama of the house. All this might work without excellent food, but there is that, too. Except for a few extraordinary dishes, among them a marinated fish salad similar to seviche, quiche, several fish dishes and strawberry sherbert, the total dinner -- which is fixed price and moderately so -- adds up to more than the sum of individual dishes, which are very competent but not spectacular cooking. Start dinner with a champagne and framboise cocktail and end by taking home a quiche or plum tart for tomorrow when you wish you were back at Chez Francois. Le Bagatelle 2000 K St. NW. 872-8677. L $6.50-$9.95, D $10.95-$14.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking for dinner. Full bar service.

This garden-green French restaurant is frest, pretty and formal. And it serves French haute cuisine that is at least correct if not always exciting. The most interestng dishes are likely to be on the printed list of daily specials, and Le Bagatelle deserves praise for actually printing the list rather than leaving it to the captain to recite for the diners to memorize. Elaborate preparations at Le Bagatelle are least likely to please, except for desserts. Start with crabmeat or smoked salmon or something similarly restrained. Among main dishes, the crab imperial is historically and currently excellent, and dishes with hollandaise or bearnaise sauces fare well. cLe Bagatelle attends carefully to salads, and its cheese slection is well chosen and impeccably served. The pastry carts offer some of Le Bagatelle's finest moments, particularly the tarts, or the berries with sauce sabayon. Noteworthy also is the wine list, extensive though pricey, and the wine specials on the daily menu. Le Consulat 2015 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 265-1600.L $5.25-$9.95, D $11.95-$15.95. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in garage, valet parking for dinner. Full bar service. Le Danielle Hay-Adams Hotel, 800 16th St, NW. 638-2260, Ext. 276. L $8.50-$13, D $13-$17. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking. Full bar service. 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. Reservations suggested.Parking in commercial lots. Full bar service.

If what you care about is the cooking, the amenities on the plate rather than in the dining room, join the crowds at Le Gaulois.The central feature of this over crowded restaurant is the full page of daily specials, nearly two dozen main courses, offering at reasonable prices such dishes as duch with tropical fruits, veal with chanterelles, salmon in a pastry crust with champagne sauce. In summer, the main course salads -- beef, salmon and a superb rice version of salade nicoise -- are unsurpassed. Seafoods, veals, lamb, and game in the winter are imaginative and talented productions. Main courses are the highlight; appetizers can sink to course and bitter seafood pate or smoked salmon that is just oily fish sliced too long ago. But most of the food matches Washington's expense-account French restaurants, and the fruit tarts are justifiably renowned. The tables are too small, and you are likely to feel rushed, but the crush is a tribute to the food. Le Jardin 1113 23rd St. NW. 457-0057. L $3.95-$7.95, D $4.25-$12.95. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot next door. dFull bar service. Le Lion d'Or 18th and M Sts. NW. 296-7972. L $4.50-$14.50, D $9.75-$16. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE,CB, D, MC, V. Reservations required. eParking at nearby garage. Full bar service.

Just as we say Kleenex when we mean tissues, Le Lion d'Or has become a synonym for grand French dining in Washington. The dining room has matured to fit this image, the black and gold striped walls and gold-rimmed service plates reinforcing the luxury, the room bustling with black-tie captains performing tableside productions. Tall flutes of champagne with framboise dot the room as diners begin their ritual of hot rabbit pate, rare lamb or duck or venison, perhaps mousse-stuffed trout or baby salmon in puff pastry, the flaming orange souffle. The menu has been revamped to concentrate on the house specialties, weeding out the chaff. But daily specials recited by the captain -- a long, confusing and often very expensive list -- are the heart of the matter. The kitchen certainly has its lapses -- navarin of tough lobster for two as an apetizer -- but usually Le Lion d'Or presents a range from robust to delicate, classical to nouvelle that display impressive talent. And every year the repertoire developes new fresh seafood and game, new vegetables purees, new fresh herb sauces. Le Lion d'Or is as prone to human foibles as any restuarant, but it remains a pace-setter and the most mature of Washington's top three French restaurants. Le Manouche 1724 Connecticut Ave. NW. 462-8771. L $4.25, $6.50, D $4.95-$7.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed SUN. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot next door. Full bar service.

Le Manouche is one of those unfathomable French restaurants where the food is wonderful and dreadful, reasonable and expensive, a little of the best and the worst. The setting is of rustic, rough wood and tablecloths, the serive spirited and eager, then nonexistent. Some of the best dishes are cold appetizers -- hors d'oeuvres plates and pates -- and fish, whether a salmon in pastry or trout in a cream sauce. And if cheesecake is on the list, reserve a piece, for it is superlative creamly, lemony, dense cheesecake with a light washof raspberry sauce. Then, there are dishes like the duck, stringy and gravy-sodden, yet the highest priced on the menu. Le Manouche, named after a gypsy cart, travels a road with a few potholes. Le Pavillon 1820 K St. NW. 833-3846. L $7.75-$9.50, D $16.50-$25. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking for dinner only. Full bar service.

Look for big changes this year in Le Pavillon, at least in the design of the room. There is no change expected, thank goodness, in the food. This is inventive French cooking, food of considerable excitement. No mousse in town is as light as Le Pavillon's chicken liver mousse with lobster, truffles and red and green peppers. The puff pastry is a nut-brown crunch sometimes filled with sole mousse and belon oysters from Maine, dollops of caviar in its cream sauce. Sauces are thin and translucent, the meat sauces golden. Vegetables are carved into tiny perfect batons and placed precisely on the plates. Desserts have been developed to include wondrous bitter chocolate terrine, pear flan with ginger, fine-grained sherbets of exotic fruits. Chef Yannick Cam brought nouvelle cuisine to Washington, and with Jean-Louis of the Watergate, has maintained high excitement on the palates of Washington, at least those who are willing to spend what such handiwork costs and who are not offended by small portions but appreciate their arrangement as well as their preparation. Le Provencal 1234 20th St. NW. 223-2420. L $6.25-$8.75, D $10.95-$15.95.L, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking next door. Full bar service. Le Rendez-Vous 3155 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 522-4787. L $3.95-$5.25, D $5.50-$11.95. L daily, D daily. Closed Mon. AE, CB, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking in rear. Full bar service.

While Le Rendez-Vous serves Thai, Korean, Indonesian and Chinese food, it is, like Germaine's, primarily a Vietnamese restaurant. Start with shrimp tempura, however, and ask if there are stir-fried crabs available. Home-style duck is rich with the anise-cinnamon-clove scent of five-spice powder. Also try seafood curry and pork rolls with broccoli. Le Rendez-Vous serves very good Asian food, with more attention and flourish than turns up in most of Washington's Asian restaurants. Focus on main dishes, avoid the often inept grilled skewered meats, and you should enjoy an evening of pan-Asian delight. Le Vagabond 7315 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 654-2575. L $3.95-$7.50, D $11.50-$14.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed SUN. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in adjacent lot. Full bar service. Le Vieux Logis 7925 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda. 652-6816. L $4.75-$7.50, D $8-$12. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun.AE, MC, V. Reservations requested. Parking in rear or street. Full bar service. No smoking section. Ledo 2420 University Blvd. E, Hyattsville. 422-8622. L, D $2.50-$10.95. Open daily. No credit cards. No reservations. Parking in front. Full bar service. Children's prices. No smoking section.

Just remember pizza. Ledo is probably Prince George's County's longest running hit, for nobody can remember not seeing a line outside its front door. And, while it serves the usual range of Italian dishes -- veal parmesan, chicken cacciatore, lasagna, spaghetti and such -- its central feature is unique pizza. The pizza is rectangular, with flaky crust and thick, dark tomato paste topping. It is much loved, for good reason, and best garnished with bacon or sausage. And, obviously, it becomes addictive. Les Ambassadeurs 1310 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 333-8900. L $4-$10, D $8-$16. Open daily. Ae, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking. Valet parking. Full bar service. Les Champs The Watergate, 600 New Hampshire Ave. NW. 338-3901. L $3.25-$8.25, D $4.95-$14.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily ex Sun. Ae, CB, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service. Lido di Venezia 200 N. gLebe Rd., Arlington. 525-8770. L $4.25-$6.75, D $7.25-$13. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in front. Full bar service. No-smoking section. Los Planes de Renderos 908 11th St. NW. 347-8416. L, D $1.25-$8. Open daily. Ae, cb, d, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service. Children's prices.

Now there are tablecloths, but otherwise the fanciest fixture at Los Planes de Renderos is the tape deck on the bar, playing Latin music. If you choose carefully, this can be one of the best meal bargins in the city, even among the non-alcoholic beverages. Ensalada de frutas is fresh melon and pinneapple whipped with water and ice in a blender, costing not much more than coffee. The heart of the nenu is the a la carte section: tacos are puffy or crisp, depending on which you order, well stuffed and well seasoned. The menu includes perfectly good versions of all the Mexican staples; burritos, chiles rellenos, chalupas, enchiladas, nachos, refried beans and tamales. And it contains less familiar items you should try, like stuffed cornmeal cakes called pupusas. The empanadas are also excellent. Los Planes de Renderos offers few niceties; the fish will not be boned, and the chicken, though nicely seasoned and crisp, may be reheated. Your plate will be laden not with delicacies but with large portions of good earthy food, a lot of substance for the money. Lombardy Cafe 2019 I St. NW. 828-2608. L $3.50-$3.95, D $4.95-$6.95. L daily, D daily ex Sat, Sun. MC, V. Reservations accepted. Steet parking and nearby lots. Full bar service. Children's prices. Lotus Inn 2404 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 337-8080. L $3.95, D $4.95-$6.25. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service. Luigi's of Bethesda 4919 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda. 659-5882. L $2.50-$5.95, D $4.25-$8.50. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot across the street after 6 p.m. Full bar service. Children's prices. The Magic Pan 5252 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 686-5500. 6201 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church. 536-4200. L $2.25-$4.95, D $2.50-$7.50. AE, MC, V. One hour free parking, Washington; mall parking lot, Falls Church. Full bar service. Mai Flower 2304 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 528-3320. L $2.50-$2.95, D $3.50-$6.50. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking in adjacent lot. Full bar service. Maison Blanche 1725 F St. NW. 842-0070. L $6.50-$13.95, D $11-$17.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking for dinner. Full bar service.

Last year the Maison Blanche opened across from the Executive Office Building, with a sea of flowered carpeting covering its expensive ground. It has quietly and gradually become a fine restaurant, its cuisine stably settled among those French restaurants just below La Pavillon, Le Lion d'Or and Jean-Louis, keeping company with Jean-Pierre, Le Bagatelle, Dominique's and Rive Gauche on its good days. Maison Blanche joins Dominique's in offering fine affordable dinners that sacrifice none of the amenities of grand dining. It has one of the town's most elegant pates maison. Mussels ravigote are similarly outstanding among appetizers. Some of the grand entree adventures are fresh baby duckling with cassis, crayfish, roasted loin of veal with fresh wild mushrooms, saddle fo rabbit. There are lapses, in particular the acid marinated trout and weighty quenelles. But the chef understands the intricacies of seasoning, from soups to sherbets. b 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. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service. Mama's 1901 N. Ft. Myer Dr., Arlington. 524-2512. L $2.95-$6.50, D $6.45-$8.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. Ae, d, mc, v. Reservations suggested. Parking in adjacent lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. Mama Ayesha's Calvert Cafe 1967 Calvert St. NW. 232-5431. L, D $4.95-$5.95. Open daily. No credit cards. Reservations accepted. Street parking. Full bar service. Children's prices.

Nothing changes at Mama Ayesha's Calvert Cafe, not the 10-entree Arabic menu that averages $5, not the dashing corps of waiters, not the unadorned dining rooms, not the Arabic background music, not Mama Ayesha herself greeting the world from her rear booth. The food, too, remains authentic and straightforward, with a few especially good dishes. The best of the lot are the hummos and baba ghanouj among appetizers, shish kebab and dry couscous among main courses and, of course, bird's nest or baklava for dessert. The "special salad" is an exaggeration not worth the extra expense. And most of the oven cooking or simmering -- stuffed vegetables, baked kibbe, wet couscous -- is overcooked and no better than average. But start with milky white arak to drink and warm pita to dip into the appetizer spreads and go on to shish kebab (or order a special dish ahead if you have the foresight) and you will understand Mama Ayesha's longevity. Mamma Desta 4840 Georgia Ave. NW. 882-2955. L, D $3.95-$5.35. Open daily. No credit cards. Reservations accepted. Street parking. Beer and wine only. Children's prices.

Mamma Desta's restaurant is an experience. The first of Washington's Ethiopian restaurants, it has not yet been topped, but has gone on improving itself. It still looks the revamped luncheonette that it is, with the TV on the bar. But it is now furnished with basket tables from Ethiopia and folk art on the walls, along with the original booths. And though the menu still offers only main courses, no appetizers or desserts, you can drink everything from imported German beer to homemade honey wine in individual jugs, and even Perrier or Sprite. Central to Ethiopian dining are giant, pale, thin pancakes, sour from their fermented batter, which serve as tablecloth and utensil -- you eat with your hands by scooping meats and vegetables with pieces of pancake. Order small bowls of stewed chicken, lamb or beef, either mildly spiced with cumin, cinnamon and the like, or hotly peppered with red pepper paste; spoon mounds of the meats and side dishes of braised cabbage and green beans and carrots in between, then start tearing and scooping. Whatever combinations you choose, certainly include tibs, smoky-flavored grilled cubes of beef with onions, a mild dish that even entices children, and try the hand-chopped raw beef with chili pepper and butter to moisten it; a marvelous variation of tartar steak, it is called kitfo. Mamma Desta blends sweet, savory and hot spices masterfully. There's only one problem: after trying just one or more bite of this and one more tast of that, and having more pancakes brought to the table, you wonder if you'll ever be able to stop. With most of the main dishes under $4 and a jug of that intriguing honey wine $1, Mamma Desta's is a unique bargain. The Man in the Green Hat 301 Massachusetts Ave. NE. 546-5900. L $3.25-$6.95, D $3.50-$13. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service. Children's prices.

The Man in the Green Hat is slipping again. Sometimes this sprightly Capitol Hill pub serves sensational food, as when it bakes its own herbed pita bread and spices its chili with as liberal dose of seasoning as of chunks of crusty roast beef. But at my last visit the chili was pale and starchy, the avocado soup missing al taste and texture of avocado. The roast beef sandwich with feta, pickled peppers, tomatoes and herbs on pita bread would have been wonderful if it had not been sitting in a quarter-inch pool of yellow oil. And broiled scallops were as tasteless as they were grossly large. Even the chocolate mousse was dried out. This two-story green and white pub with sidewalk cafe is lively, usually fun if you don't consider noise and fun mutually exclusive. The hamburgers and roast beef are generally fine, the salads vibrant, the homemake breads and pastries done with a flourish. This is a spirited restaurant, but sometimes spirits get most of the attention. Marianna's 1806 King St., Alexandria. 548-9181. L $1.95-$4.95, D $4.25-$8.95. Open daily. MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service. Children's prices. Maxime 5300 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 244-7666. L $3.95-$7.95, D $4.95-$10.95. L, Ddaily. Closed Sun. MC, V. Reservations accepted for dinner only. Parking in rear. Full bar service.

Under the roof of the Mazza Gallerie is an indoor sidewalk cafe that is a more appropriate break from shopping at Neiman Marcus than, say, the Mcdonald's next door, but not the sort of French restaurant for which you would cross the city. Tiled and sunny, it is certainly pretty. And the service is personable, casual. The food is pretty good, with tall pyramids of salad, smooth custard quiches in puff pastry, simple meat and fish dishes and pastries that are highlights. Prices are higher than one expects for a casual stop, a plate of food that is good but not memorable, sullied by mushy canned vegetables. But do stay for a fat, glistening berry tart or creamy walnut cake or chocolate roll. With salad or quiche and pastry, a shopping break for under $10 is worth adding to your list. Maxine's 2519 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 659-8220. L $3.95-$5.95, D $6.95-$12.95. L, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking or commercial lots. Full bar service. Children's prices. McGuire's 1330 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 544-5411. L $3.25-$4.95, D $3.95-$6.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. No reservations. Street parking. Full bar service. Children's prices. Mikado 4707 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 244-1740. L $3.50-$7, D $4-$14. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. Closed Mon. MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service.

In an era that values light eating, Ikado's high prices for small portions detract little from its agreeability. Small and unassuming yet clearly Japanese in character (right down to the electric sake warmer), Mikado serves pristine little dishes of marinated vegetables, grilled skewered meats, noodles afloat in broths, raw and grilled fish and a few rich and densely meaty casseroles. The shabu shabu dinner is rightly a favorite. Expect savory cooking for your money but not much substance. A dollop of cold spinach sparked with sesame seeds and soy sauce, a few fresh plump crab chunks marinated with cucumbers in vinegar, a small still life of not-fresh-enough sashimi and a five- or six-inch chunk of superb, unctuous eel with a sesame-lemon-dressed salad recently provided two people with an austere meal for nearly $30. But except for the sushi and sashimi -- and the seating of strangers at our table in a half-empty room -- the meal was a gem. Mike palm's 321 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 543-8337. L $2.75-$4.95, D $5.50-$7.95. Open daily. AE, CB, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Street parking. Full bar service. The Monocle 107 D St. NE. 546-4488. L $3.75-$9.75, D $6.50-$14.95. L, D daily. Closed Sat, Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Free parking in adjacent lot after 4 p.m. Full bar service. My Brother and Me 1700 K St. NW. 296-6686. L,D$2.95-$8.95. L,D daily. Closed Sat, Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. No reservations. Parking in nearby lots. Full bar service.

Hidden below the bustling cormer of 17th and K Streets NW is a bustling bar where it's easy to relax and forget the over-head traffic jams. It is contemporary and gregarious, the menu running the usual gamut of burgers and salads, plus a long page of entrees -- steak, omelets, quiches, shrimp. Much of the food is the familiar pub level: large portions of fairly tasteless ingredients. But fried foods stand out here; the onion rings are thin and crisp and impossible not to finish despite the enormous portions, and the fried chicken wings are all that, plus tender and juicy, too. Napoleon's 2649 Connecticut ave. NW. 265-8955. D $9.95-$14.50. D daily. Ae, CB, CC, D, MC,V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service. Nathan's 3150 M St. NW. 338-2000. L $3.25-$6.25, D $7.25-$14.75. L, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Street parking or nearby lots. Full bar service. New China 660 S. Pickett St., Alexandria. 751-8888. L $2.45-$4.50, D $3.50-$8.95. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking in front. Full bar service. Nora 2132 Florida Ave. NW.462-5143. L $4.25-$6.95, D $5.95-$11.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. No credit cards. Reservations suggested. Street parking and nearby lots. Full bar service.

Fresh as a garden is Nora's gathering place. It is more than a restaurant -- a neighborhood bar, a club for Nora's friends, a skylit pub with a quiet walled courtyard, a haven from frozen and canned and adulterated foodstuffs. Nora is a sophisticated return to old-fashioned home cooking, with dishes from here and there but ingredients only from impeccable sources that raise their meats without chemicals. The cooking at Nora is better than ever, the soups dense with flavor, the lunchtime picadillo sweetly spiced with cumin, onions and peppers. Nora cooks fish with imagination, chopping the remains with dill and yogurt for a salad. The liver pate is smooth and subtly peppered. The sandwich breads and ice creams are homemade. And along with everyday salads, sandwiches, pasta concoctions and meats stewed or grilled are surprises: skewered beef hearts or a salad with filament-thin enok mushrooms. In a fresh, casual setting of flowered tablecloths and luscious food photography. Nora is full of clatter, its service rough-edged and harried. But the cooking has matured, and the service may follow suit. Nizam's 523 Maple Ave. W., Vienna. 938-8948. L $2.95-$5.50, D$6.50-$10.50. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in shopping center lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. O'Brien's Pit Barbecue 1314 E Gude Dr., Rockville. 340-8596. L,D $3.50-$7.95. Open daily. MC,V. N reservations. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices.

Hickory-smoked slabs of meat, cafeteria lines and Formica are as American as the Stars and Stripes, so if you are looking for something to categorize as an American restaurant, try O'Brien's. The barbecued ribs are lean, meaty and deep-smoked. The beef brisket is tender and moist, the chopped pork or beef full of wonderful crusty bits. This is barbecue at its local best. The sauce is more sharp than sweet and plenty hot. Add to your plastic plate the homemade but not sensational potato salad and coleslaw, inconsequential baked beans of "texas toast." a mug of beer, a cup of too-sweet but fairly good chili fill out a meal that is nofrills and priced accordingly. Occoquan Inn 301 Mill St., Occoquan, 703/491-1888. L $2.50-$4, D $6.95-$13.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted, suggested on weekends. Parking in rear. Full bar service. Children's prices. Ocean ix 1323 Fenwick Lane, Silver Spring. 589-0999. L $5.95-$12.50, D $7.50-$14.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in rear. Full bar service.

Ocean ix is to be found on a side street, a pretty little house with awnings over the windows and a flower garden in front, and flanked by a parking lot. The dining rooms are ample but still of intimate scale. Finding an extensive seafood menu with special emphasis on grilled fish is welcome. In addition to the menu, which stretches from whole broiled fish to bouillabaisse, a blackboard in front announces daily seafood specials. Ocean ix offers a wide variety of fresh fish whole and in filets, but service is harrassed. The wisest choices are among the blackboard specials, but dinner may be accompainied by indifferent side dishes. There is a good restaurant at Ocean ix, but it is hidden among a lot of mistakes. O'Donnell's 8301 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. 656-6200. L $3.75-$8.95, D $5.595-$17.95. Open daily. AE, CB, CC, D, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lots on either side. Full bar service. Children's prices No-smoking section. Old Angler's Inn 10801 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac. 365-2425. L $4.50-$8.50, D $10.50-$16. L, D daily. Closed Mon. AE, CB, D, MC, V.Reservations suggested. Parking in front. Full bar service.

If trees and flowers and patios and green lawns were enough to make a restaurant, Old Angler's would have it made. Even indoors, this century-old inn is an idyll of working fireplaces and dark heavy beams. But it is frayed, slightly ramshackle and strung with fish nets and tawdry gewgaws, and the kitchen is part of the present slipshod era. On occasion, the rack of lamb or crabmeat rise to bygone dignity, but other than a nicely smoked, still moist cold trout, recent investigation has fund more to mourn than to celebrate. Should the setting and parkway ride tempt you anyway, risk it and order something simple. But don't aim to dine at Old Angler's at the end of your canal walk or bicycle ride, because proper attire is required. Old Angler's has its standards, but they need to be applied to the kitchen. The Old Ebbitt Grill 1427 F St. NW. 347-5560. L $3.75-$5.50, D $3.75-$12.50. Open daily. AE, MC, V. No reservations. Street parking and nearby lots. Full bar service. Old South Mountain Inn Boonesboro, Md. 301/432-6155. $6 $3.25-$5.95, D $7.25-$15. L, D daily. Closed Mon. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices Omar Khayyam 112 N. St. Asaph St., Alexandria. 548-2255. L $3.50-$5.50, D $7-$10. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. Closed Mon. AE, CB, D, MC, V. $7Reservations suggested on weekends. Street parking. Full bar service.

If Washingtonians ever kicked the habit of automatically thinking French when they want a special evening, Omar Khayyam would be overrun. It is a very pretty restaurant, its three stories delicately set with Persian curlicues and fretwork, exotic but very sophisticated. Musicians and belly dancers entetain in the evenings, but not loudly enough to rule out conversation. Service is formal, attentive. And even with all those amenities, the highlight is the food. Stuffed grape leaves here are sweet and sour, pretty and unique. Kebabs are tender and juicy, only mildly seasoned, so that the charcoal flavor predominates. And then there is the chicken with pomegranates and walnuts, a marvel of a flavor, the moist pieces of boneless chicken covered with a dark paste sweet and tangy and earthy with walnuts. All this on a mound of butter-infused rice decorated with carrot-orange grains on to and accompanied by homemade flat loaves of light, yeasty bread. Orient Express 10560 Main St., Fairfax. 273-8812. L $1.75-$5.25, D $3.75-$9.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in front. Full bar service. The Palazzo Markham East Shopping Center, Annandale. 354-1677. L $2.50-$6.95, D $4.50-$9.95. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in front. Full bar service. Children's prices. Pancho Villa 5530 Norbeck Rd., Rockville. 871-8554. L, D $2.95-$9.95. Open daily. CB, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in shopping center lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. Patent Pending National Portrait Gallery, 9th and G Sts. NW. 638-6503. L $2.95-$3.50. L daily. No credit cards. No resrvations. Street parking. Beer and wine only. The Peasant Basket 3321 Connecticut Ave. NW. 244-5804. K $3.95-$6.55. D daily. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in front. Full bar service. Peking Garden 6802 Commerce St., Springfield. 451-9350. L $2.25-$3.95, D $3.25-$7.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested, required for eight or more. Parking in front. Full bar service. Peking Palace 7944 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. 652-6460. L $3.75-$5.75, D $5.25-$8.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in rear. Full bar service. Petitto's 2653 Connecticut Ave. NW. 667-5350. L $4-$8, D $5.75-$16. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking and nearby lots. Full bar service.

Far from the spaghetti-and-meatballs image, this pasta house serves homemade egg noodles with cream, mushrooms, prosciutto and peas and linguine with crab or clams. It serves these elaborate pasta dishes in whimsically decorated little dining rooms and an outdoor cafe and embellishes the menu with daily meat and seafood specials: veal with amaretto, mushrooms and shallots; fish or squid with lemon butter. The menu is small, with California contemporary touches on its Italian base. Interesting, yes. But not always. The California touch is evident -- and welcome -- in an antipasto pyramided with fine Italian ham and salami, sharp, aged provolone, plump anchovies and pungent little olives over a bed of crisp romaine, with cruets of oil and vinegar to dress it yourself. Besides being beautiful, it is ample for two. In the pasta department, the noodles are either homemade or top-quality imports, cooked to the proper bite, and often sauced with distinction, as in spaghetti matriciana with its light peppery tomato sauce and chunks of lean, smoky bacon. But more delicate dishes have been made clumsily; fettucine with caviar is cotton-candy pink from a strange tasteless stuff that is meant as red caviar, and veal has been pasty on the surface and cooked dry, immersed in a lumpy sauce. The spumoni tastes like sherbet, but you can find a midnight-dark and moist chocolate cake and service that is winning even when the kitchen is irritatingly slow. Piccadilly 5510 Connecticut Ave. NW. 966-7600. L, D daily. Closed Sun. Ae, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Street parking. Full bar service. Children's prices. Pierce Street Annex 1210 19th St. Nw. 466-4040. L, D $1.95-$4.25. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, MC, No reservations. Parking garage. Full bar service. Pigfoot 1812 Hamlin St. NE. 635-3888. D $2.95-$8.95. D daily. Closed Sun, Mon, Tues. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking in rear. Full bar service. Children's prices. Pines of Rome 4709 Hampden La., Bethesda. 657-8775. L $3.50-$9.50, D $4-$12. L, D daily. Closed Mon. AE, CB, D, MC, V. N reservations. Street parking. Beer and wine only.

Sometimes you hit it, and sometimes you don't at the Pines of Rome, the kind of restaurant that keeps you believing that the more rustic the food and the rougher the service, the better an Italian restaurant is going to be. The place looks a cross between a home and a community center, with red oilcloth on the tables and unframed pictures on the walls. The waiters toss the food at you. The wine is poured into tumblers, as it would be in such a restaurant in Italy. And the food is always decent and hearty, always served in huge portions and sometimes great. You have to bone your own fish, but it is fresh. Roast veal is served in nearly half-calf portions, though sometimes it has been cooked so long it crumbles. Concentrate on vegetables -- white beans, fried zucchini -- and accompany your meal with white pizza, even red if you like. Skip the fettucine alfredo and finish with one of this town's really good cannoli. Whatever may go wrong, at the Pines of Rome the price is right. Plata Grande 4060 Powder Mill Rd., Beltsville. 572-7744. L $3.15-$6.35, D $4.75-$12.95. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted for five or more. Parking in adjacent lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. No-smoking section. The Prime Rib 2020 K St. NW. 466-8811 L $6.50-$10.75, D $11.50-$17. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking. Full bar service.

The Prime Rib looks like the last of the supper clubs, even at lunch, when the silk-shaded table lamps are lit, the Lucite-topped grand piano playing despite the bustling workaday world outside. The walls are gilt-edged black, and the diners are gilt-edged meat and potatoes fans. The Prime Rib's specialty is self-explanatory, and it is excellent roast beef, tender and juicy and flavorful. With it, have fried potato skins. Or as an alternative, succulent lump crab imperial in a mustard-spiked cream. The menu also lists simple grills -- steaks, lamb chops, pork chops -- and a couple of fish dishes. sThe closest Prime Rib comes to being inventive or complicated is serving shredded fresh horseradish on the side of its beef. If you want plain fare served with a black-tie flourish, Prime Rib is one of the city's few possibilities. Publick House 3218 M St., NW. 333-6605. D $5.95-$12.50.D daily. Ae, mc, v. Reservations suggested. Parking lots. Full bar service. Children's prices. Pueblo Joe's 4200 Wisconsin Ave., NW. 966-8285. L $2-$4.45, D $4.45-$10.95. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking in mall lot under building. Full bar service. Children's prices.

Pueblo Joe's understands a lot about the mystique of beauty. The dishes are colorful and bulging in the right places. And, just as clothes may make the woman, Pueblo Joe's makes Washington's best-dressed restaurant list. The main dining room is tiled in terra cotta and topped with a mirrored ceiling. A wooden cart is filled with plants, and illumination is from iron street lamps and stained glass windows. Pueblo Joe's looks like the kind of place you would like to go while on vacation. But it is a restaurant where they smile a lot while they blunder. The tacos and enchiladas grin blandly for fear of offending. Several dishes -- not just desserts -- are too sweet. Drinks are enormous, but puffed up with fruit and ice. Like the drinks, the food is, at best, unobjectionable and likable. Quincy's 5444 Columbia Pike, Arlington. 671-2774. L, D $2.95-$9.95. Open daily. MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking in front and rear. Full bar service. Rafters at Landmark 2 S. Whiting St., Alexandria. 751-8646. L $3.45-$7.45, D $8.95-$14.95. L daily, D daily ex Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. No-smoking section. Ramparts 1700 Fern St., Alexandria. 998-6616. L $3.25-$4.75, D $6.95-$9.95. Open daily. MC, V. Reservations accepted. Street parking. Full bar service. The Red Fox Tavern Madison and Washington Sts., Middleburg, Va. 471-4455. L $3.25-$4.95, D $7.25-$13.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in rear. Full bar service. Children's prices. Rive Gauche 3200 M St., NW. 333-6440. 6 $8.50-$10, D $15.50-$30. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking. Full bar service.

For many years the godfather of Washington's French restaurants, Rive Gauche has continued to maintain a glorious red and gold dining room with a well-oiled staff. The cuisine has had its ups and downs, but shows strong signs of an upswing these days. Although the menu has resisted change -- and faddism -- for years, the infusion of new talent and nouvelle cuisine in Washington's other restaurants has spurred Rive Gauche on to better efforts. Sauces are lighter, dishes imaginatively arranged, flavors more pronounced with the use of fresh herbs. The old faithful dishes are still excellent; sups and the creamy crabmeat veronique as appetizers. Lately, a filet of salmon under a creamy tangle of shredded leeks was simply delicious. In fact, from subtle rabbit pate to assorted sublime sherbets arranged like a bouquet, my most recent meal was fine, save the flown-in-from-France St. Pierre fish, which lost a lot through jet lag. Rive Gauche seems to be taking a deep breath and meeting the challenge again. r The Roma 3419 Connecticut Ave., NW. 363-6611. L $3.25-$7.95, D $4.50-$9.50. Open daily. AE, CB, CC, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service. Children's prices. Romeo & Juliet 2020 K St. NW. 296-7112. L $8.25-$11.25, D $8.80-$16.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. Reservations accepted. Valet parking for dinner. Full bar seravice. Roof Terrace Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW. 833-8870. L $4.95-$8.95, D $7.50-$13.25. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in Kennedy Center garage. Full bar service.

While not meant to draw diners for a gastronomic evening, the Kennedy Center's Roof Terrace restaurant is doing a better-than-ever job of serving theatergoers quickly and decorously. Service is efficient and generally smooth, and the high-ceilinged room with its tall, plush ruby banquettes and dazzling view of the city is a glorious backdrop to the food. The food is pretty good, particularly soups and pastries, the latter served from an imposing array on a rolling cart. Middle courses are a mixed bag, though at one day's lunch the crab cakes were stellar, and served with crisp stir-fried vegestables. At least there is always a creditable cold smoked chicken garnished with fresh fruits if nothing else tempts you. When in doubt, order the simplest dishes. Roundtable 4859 Wisconsin Ave., NW. 362-1250. L, D $2.25-$8.50. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Full bar service. Royal Pagoda 11621 Beltsville Dr., Beltsville. 572-4402. L $2.85-$4.50, D $3.95-$8.50. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lots. Beer and wine only. Children's prices.No smoking section. Saigon Inn 6922-A Braddock Rd., Annandale. 256-1111. L $2.75-$4.25, D $4.50-$7.50. L, D daily. Closed Sun, Mon. Ae, cb, d, mc, v. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices.

Saigon Inn's menu is long, its 70 dishes even including cheeseburgers. But choices can be broken down into appetizers (which might tempt you to make an entire meal), soups with or without noodles (meals in themselves unless you share a bowl with several people), house specialties of grilled meats or shrimp to wrap in rice paper, and meats or seafoods stir-fried and sauced, with or without vegetables. Along with cha gio (spring rolls), the most interesting appetizers are cold rice paper rolls stuffed with shrimp, pork, lettuce and fresh mint, to dip in superb hoisin peanut sauce. Main courses should include at least one house specialty, perhaps grilled prok with rice cakes or grilled shrimp on sugar cane. This kind of wrap-and-dip food is not only fun, it is light eating and sufficiently crunchy and cool to appeal to flagging summer appetites. Except for a few silk flower arrangements, the decor is standard Virginia Shopping Center Ethnic: dark wood veneer paneling, booths along the sides, red tablecloths and candles in red globes, and American colonial brass chandeliers. Saigon Inn is far from elaborate, and there is nothing spectacular about the food. Rather, it is siimple cooking with a deft touch to the sauces and special care in homey details. St. Regis 2218 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 337-3030 L $2.50-$7, D $4.50-$10.95. L, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, CC, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot across the street. Full bar service. Samantha's 1823 L St., NW. 223-1823. L $3.45-$4.95, D $3.50-$10.50. L daily, D daily ex Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested.Street parking and commercial lots. Full bar service. Samurai Sushiko 2309 Wisconsin Ave., NW. 333-4187. L $3-$5.50, D $3.75-$11.50. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. Closed Mon. AE. Reservations required. Parking in rear. Full bar service.

Like a small museum of Japanese arts, Samurai Sushiko covers its menus in luscious silks and its bench cushions in stunning geometric fabrics. One wall row of booths and the other wall a sushi bar with stools, the restaurant seats a few but serves rapidly those gorgeous little morsels of faw fish, glossy fish eggs, sea urchins and crustaceans on pads of rice or fanne out on lacquer or pottery platters. Sushi and sashimi are the mainstays, and they are as fresh as you are likely to find in Washington. But the rstaurant also serves tempura, teriyaki, two soups and excellent meat dumplings in paper-thin noodle wrappers. Always new sushi appear on the menu above the sushi bar, nowadays salted roe with raw quail eggs. But try the tuna, abalone, salmon roe, all the usual sushi, and be sure to have some rich unctuous eel, with beer to quench the green horseradish fire and a mug of pale gree tea to finish. You can wade through a lot o sushi -- and a lot o money -- without batting an eye, or carefully monitor your intake and have had a light, rapid and invigorating lunch in an exquisite setting at a modest price. San Francisco East Co. 4871 Cordell Ave., Bethesda.986-8566. L, D daily. Closed Sun. No credit cards. No reservations. Free parking in adjacent lot after 5:30 p.m. Beer and wine only. Scotland Yard 728 King St., Alexandria. 683-1742. L $3.25-$4.75, D $7.25-$11.95. L daily, D daily ex Sun. Closed Mon. MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lots. Full bar service. Children's prices.

Scotland Yard is a bonnie darling of a restaurant with tartan tablecloths and lace curtains between the dark wood booths. Its food, though, is an afterthought. One evening the staff was as nice as it could be, but few of the menu items were in stock, and those that were looked grim and tasted no better. Not only was the food -- from muddy-looking fish soup to greasy and tasteless short ribs -- unappealing, but it was rather expensive. Yet such a warm and charming little nook o a restaurant might be worth stopping by for a drink. Sea Catch 1221 E St. NW. 737-2101. L $2.50-$6.50, D $5.75-$11.75. Open daily. AE, CB, CC, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. Serbian Crown 4529 Wisconsin Ave., NW. 9ll-6787. D $10.95-$15. D daily. Ae,cb, D, MC, V. Rervations required. Parking in rear. Full bar service.

Rosy walls and violin music, caviar with bliny and vodka with strawberries -- such are the touches that set the Serbian Crown apart from the crowd of Washington's elegant restaurants. The menu overlaps with French but is largely Russian and Yugoslavian; its offerings range from earthy ground meat kebabs -- cevapcici -- and stuffed cabbage to sophisticated kulebiaka of salmon and veal Orloff. Although the list of hors d'oeuvres is tempting, particularly the caviars with or without bliny, main dishes are more satisfactory, notably fish wrapped in pastry -- pate de sole Vladimir for one person, or kulebiaka for two people. Lamb is also excellent here, wither the filet with tarragon or the rack of lamb with a border of very good vegetables. End with apple strudel, tart and flaky, for the main dessert alternative is something insultingly called Russian cake, with canned fruit cocktail. Service at the Serbian Crown is moody and erratic; it is the main dishes of this restaurant that show the best of Russian character. 1789 1226 36th St. NW. 965-1789. D $11.50-$16.25. D daily.Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking. Full bar service. Shang Hai 4-5-6 5884 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church. 998-5115. L $2.45-$3.95, D $3.45-$8.95. Open daily. MC, V. Reservations accepted, suggested on weekends. Parking lot. Full bar service. The Sherry Cafe 2116 F St. NW. 861-8447. L $3.50-$5.95, D $6.95-$12.95. Open daily. MC, V. Reservations accepted. Stret parking. Full bar service. Children's prices. No-smoking section. Sholl's 1990 K St. NW. 296-3065. 1443 K St. NW. 783-4133. L,D $.85-$2.50. L, D daily. Closed Sun. No credit cards. No reservations. Commercial parking lots on street parking. No alcoholic beverages.

McDonald's can fold up its golden arches when it comes to competing with Sholl's cafeterias, where a full dinner with fresh fruits and fresh vegetables and homemade pies and puddings wil cost less than $4. Tourists, policemen, office workers and down-and-outers mix in this cafeteria line, where liver is less than $1. The pride of Sholl's is in its freshness -- seasonal produce, fish, excellent lean hamburger meat, home-baked breads and pastries. Surroundings are tearoom-clean. The fare is plain, but the steam table is replenished often enough that it remains perky. Quick, wholesome All-American food could not be a better bargain than at Sholl's. Shooter McGee's 5239 Duke St., Alexandria. 751-9266. L $2.50-$6.50, D $2.50 -$12. Open daily. AE, MC, V. No reservations. Parking in front. Full bar service. Siam Inn 11407 Amherst Ave., Wheaton. 942-0075. L, D $2.25-$9. Open daily. MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Beer and wine only. Siddhartha 1412 New York Ave., NW. 638-6828. L, D $2.50-$6. Open daily. No credit cards. No reservations.Street parking. No alcoholic beverages. Sir Walter Raleigh Inn Check local phone directories for locations. L $2.65-$5.25, D $6.50-$14.95. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. MC, V. No reservations. Parking in adjacent lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. No-smoking section. The Spaghetti Market 6347 Rolling Rd., West Springfield. 451-7356. L $2.25-$3.95, D $4.25-$7.95. L daily ex Fri, Sat, Sun, D daily. No credit cards. Reservations accepted for 10 or more only. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. No-smoking section. Steak and Ale Check local phone directories for locations. L $3.45-$6.95, D $8.45-$13.95. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. No-smoking section. Stephanie's Dupont Plaza Hotel, Dupont Circle at 19th St. NW. 462-5353. L $4.25-$11.50, D $5.95-$13.95. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Free dinner parking in hotel garage. Full bar service. Sunset 920 11th St. SE. 547-9626. L, D $2.25-$4.50. L, D daily. No credit cards. No reservations.Street parking. Full bar service.

Sunset is an in-town roard-house, a corner joint under the freeway with paneling and booths, sparkling beer signs and beeping pinball machines. The surprise is fining homemade soup and potato salad which is embellished with pickle relish and celery seeds. The hamburger costs all of 1.45, big, lean and spatula-flattened. Sunset serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, but lunch is the prime time. The menu is a parade of Americana: liverwurst, ham and cheese, pork chop sandwiches, fried chicken, Salisbury steak. It is, however, the special of the day that is the knockout buy. The Sunset does not get so intense as to peel its own potatoes or bake its own pies, but it serves homemade food, up to a point. While there certainly is nothing fancy, it is among the last of a breed. Swensen's 1990 K St. NW. 4200 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 244-5544. Bethesda Square. 986-8744. College Park Shopping Center. 779-1234. L, D $1.95-$4.95. Open daily. MC, V. No reservations. Parking lot. No alcoholic beverages. Children's prices. Szechuan 615 I St. NW. 393-0131. L $3.75-$5.25, D $4.25-$13.95. Open daily. AE, V. Reservations accepted for four or more only. Parking lot and street parking. Full bar service.

If small increments can be said to raise Washington's dining level, add to them that the Szechuan has a new carpet. And even a welcome mat. This intensely popular Chinese restaurant is so because its food can be and often is among the handful of Washington's best. But the environment -- harried, slap-dash service and unkept surroundings -- has not been a strong point. With improvements in that arena and Szechuan's talent in playing with fire, this is Chinatown's best bet. Certainly order peppery Szechuan dishes. Ou can depend on tantalizing interplay of chiles, soy, ginger, garlic and scallions. And vegetables are crisp-cooked, meats and seafoods moist and tender. Sometimes the oiliness is excessive, or the salt, or the amount of sauce. And on lazy days little attention is paid to precise cutting or lively color. Worse, fried dishes, particularly appetizers, may be grease-sodden and bland. But more frequent are the good days when Szechuan is sizzling. Szechuan & Hunan 1776 E. Jefferson St., Rockville. 770-5020. L $2.45-$3.25, D $3.50-$8.95. L daily ex Sun, D daily. MC, V. Reservations required for parties of five or more. Parking lot in front. Full bar service.

Nothing changes at Szechuan & Hunan -- fortuantely. The room is still mildly pretty, the service still as hospitable as a home, the food still bright and crisp and excellent. Amend that: The egg rolls have turned greasy and pasty inside, though their dough remains paper-thin. Order from the front page of specialties and certainly try a Hunan dish -- perhaps shredded chicken with broccoli -- violently hot or very mild, as you wish. Szechuan & Hunan has mastered the art of presenting vegetables crisp and meats and seafoods plump and moist. If there is a touch too much starch in a sauce here or there, the seasonings are always lively. Particularly intriguing is camphor-and-tea-smoked duck, moist and meaty with no fat and with a crisp laquered skin, tasting of smoke and earthy herbs. All this, and the prices are low, servings large and menu extensive. Szechuan Garden 7945 Tuckerman La., Rockville. 299-3526. L $2.25-$3.75, D $3.50-$17. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service. Szechuan Garden Bethesda 7800 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. 652-1700. L $2.25-$3.75, D $4.25-$10.95. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. parking lot nearby. Full bar service. Szechuan Inn 558 Benfield Village Shopping Center, Sevena Park, Md. 301/544-0227. L $3-$5, D $4.95-$10.50. Open daily. Ae, mc, v. Parking lot. Full bar service. T. Gregory's 2915 M St. NW. 965-2350. L $4.25-$7.50, D $10.75-$17. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking for dinner. Full bar service.

Several restaurateurs have talked lately about opening a grill restaurant specializing in charcoaled meats and fish, but while they talked, T. Gregory's did it, and did it exceedingly well. The service is dignified. tWaiters are familiar with the food, knowing which fresh herbs are used with which sauce, and keep a watchful eye on your table from a distance. The room has solid, dark wood paneling with angular English carving, an imposing stone fireplace, mirrors and leaded glass. Tiny lamps reflect in the polished bare wood floor. It is simple and English, as handsome as Basil Rathbone and of similar vintage. It is a restaurant of character; its food is very good and, in the instance of a few dishes, unexcelled. The 10 standing main courses are all grilled, but the daily specials are more varied preparations. The gravlax is an extraordinary idea, the cured salmon charcoal-grilled very briefly, just so the surface is seared and the smoke has permeated the flesh. The few steaks have stiff competition in the thick calf's liver steak, the rack of lamb and the grilled fish or squab. Appetizers can be superb, particularly the snails and the carpaccio, or even the daily mixed hor d'oeuvre. The fried shoestring potatoes are unbeatable, but order a half-portion for two to four people. Washington has many elegant restaurants, but most of those serving good food in luxurious surrounding are either French or Italian. Here is one that is purely American. Tabard Inn 1739 N St. NW. 785-1277. L $4.25-$7.95, D$6.95-$10.95. Open daily. No credit cards. Reservations accepted for dinner only. Street parking. Full bar service.

A rustic downstairs dining room decorated with cotton print tablecloths and primitive paintings, and in warm weather a well-protected outdoor terrace, Tabard Inn continues to serve interesting, high-quality food through changes of management. What has changed is the service, the servers being distant and self-absorbed, prompt but forgetful. And the prices have climbed so that a hamburger (accompanied though it may be by excellent potatoes and unusual salads can cost nearly $6. Salads are superb -- spinach with a profusion of crisp bacon and crumbled blue cheese, caesar with fresh parmesan and truly fresh croutons. Care is showered on the quality of ingredients, from freshly cooked chicken salad in ripe melon to high-quality rolls for the hamburgers. Daily specials have included surprises like Moroccan chicken-egg-almond pie in filo dough. Desserts are outstanding, none better than the chocolate mousse cheesecake in a nutty crust. Tabard Inn continues as a compliment to contemporary American cooking. Tandoor 3316 M St. NW. 333-3376. L $3.75-$6, D $4.95-$12. Open daily. D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking or nearby lots. Full bar service.

Taking its name as a guide, the tandoor oven is the unique and salient feature of this tasteful and bright, orange-accented Indian restaurant. When it opened -- to much fanfare among old India hands -- it was a rather expensive restaurant. But its prices have lagged behind inflation, so now it must be considered moderate. And in the meantime, its cooking has settled into fairly consistent satisfaction. Start with samosas, flaky fried dough triangles stuffed with spiced meat or vegetables and dipped into a wonderful sweet-hot-tart tamarind chutney. Pakoras are likely to be heavy and tough, less acceptable. By all means order murgh tandoori, the red-crusted tandoor-cooked chicken that shows this cooking to best advantage. Filet of lamb, rubbed with a similar spicy paste, is also very good. Round out the meal with tandoor-cooked flat breads. The other dishes on the menu, most of which are designated delicacies or specialities, tend to be very mildly seasoned, so you might want to urge the kitchen to loosen up a bit. Try chicken malai in a highly perfumed, buttery sauce of vegetables, yogurt and sour cream, or lamb with fresh spinach and tomatoes. Shrimp dishes are good, though shrimp biriani has been served cold and dried out. Wash down the meal with Golden Eagle beer and be prepared to fend off waiters imploring you to order a great array of side dishes and the restaurant's own cookbook. Some people consider that and the absent-minded service part of the charm. But the tandoor chicken is a better reason for trying this restaurant. Taverna Cretekou 818 King St., Alexandria. 548-8688. L $3.50-$5.75, D $8-$10.50. L, D daily. Closed Mon. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service. Thai Hut 2404 University Blvd. W., Wheaton. 949-4140. L $2.25-$4.25, D $2.25-$9. L, D daily. Closed Mon. MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in front. Beer and wine only. Thai Room 5037 Connecticut Ave. NW. 244-5933. L, D $2.25-$5.95. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking in rear. Full bar service.

Must all good things really come to an end? After years of being one of Washington's great bargain restaurants, the Thai Room seems to have taken a nosedive. The prices stayed so low for so long that something had to give. On my last visit it was the food. The satay, once boldly spiced, juicy skewered meats, were less spicy, their peanut sauce distinctly less peppery. The deep-fried chicken had less crabmeat stuffing. Worse were main dishes -- over salted, over cooked, soupy, their vegetables slimy from excess heat, the meats and seafoods skimpy. The chiles that once brought tears to the eyes have been held in reserve. At the Thai Room the average dish is under $4. We always wondered how they could do it so cheaply, and now we know that they can't anymore, at least they can't keep the quality as it was. Thai Room 527 13th St. NW. 638-2444. L, D $2.50-$4.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Street parking. Full bar service. The Third Edition 1218 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 333-3700. L $2.95-$5.95, D $7.50-$12.50. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted only for large groups. Street parking or commercial lots. Full bar service. Tiberio 1915 K St. NW. 452-1915. L $9.50-$10.95, D $11.95-$26. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB,D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking for dinner. Full bar service.

Tiberio has long been a trendsetter, the first of these subtly beautiful northern Italian restaurants that are distinguishable from French primarily by the inclusion of pastas on the menu. It has also been a forerunner in prices, the first to charge $10 for what tasted like packaged linguine with clams, $18.50 for a bottle of Blue Nun. Usually the pastas are homemade, delicate, delicious.You can get an excellent meal at Tiberio, fresh fish and pale veal and seafoods in buttery cream sauces, and even richer tarts and cakes for dessert. But the food has more elegance than personality, and the service can be imperious if you are unknown to the staff. Tiberio is reliable, but in a top-priced restaurant one hopes for more. The Tides Lodge Irvington, Va. 804/438-6000. L $2.50-$7, D $14. Open daily. Mc, V. Reservations suggested. Parking adjacent lot.Full bar service. Children's prices. Tien Yuen 1612 16th St. NW. 234-1444. L $2.95-$3.99, D $3.95-$5.75. L, D daily. Closed Sat. No credit cards. Reservations accepted. Street parking. Beer and wine only. Timberlake's 1726 Connecticut Ave. NW. 483-2266. L $3.25-$5.50, D $3.25-$7.50. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. No reservations. Parking in adjacent lot. Full bar service. Toscanini 313 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 544-2338. L, D $4.50-$6.50. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Street parking. Full bar service. Children's prices. No-smoking section. Trader Vic's Capital Hilton, 16th and K Sts. NW. 347-7100. L $4.50-$9.75, D $4.25-$17.50. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot next door. Full bar service. Trattu 1823 Jefferson Pl. NW. 466-4570. L $3.95-$6.25, D $5.50-$9.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted for dinner only. Street parking. Full bar service.

A tribute to its success, Trattu has developed from a cute little downstairs Italian restaurant to a two-branch operation and has given rise to spinoffs that copy its menu. The original Trattu still suffers from too many people trying to fill its small brickwalled dining room, but one goes there for brash conviviality rather than peaceful intimacy and for simple, robust food rather than for a wide choice of delicacies. There are only a few pastas from which to choose, but you should start with the spinach-stuffed agnolotti in cream sauce. The main courses are a couple of veals, a couple of chicken dishes, lamb with rosemary and maybe a special or two, but they are fresh and spicy, food with a distinct Italian personality, the kind of food one excepts to find in any trattoria in Italy, which is indeed a compliment. Tung Bor $11154 Georgia Ave., Wheaton. 933-3687. L $3.25-$4.75, D $3.50-$15. L, D daily. Closed Mon. MC, V. Reservations required for parties over six for dinner only. Street parking or public parking lot. Full bar service.

Tung bor is an ambitious Chinese restaurant, but its best efforts go into dim sum, so it is best visited at lunchtime. On weekends you point to what want from rolling carts; on weekdays you choose from a m enu of three dozen dim sum. In either case, the quality is as impressive as the variety.As for dinner, Tung Bor emphasizes fresh fish and seafood, and one is wise to follow suit. The specials sound intriguing -- chicken with black bean sauce, for instance -- but each year the care in preparing all but the dim sum has slipped a little. Service remains inscrutable but efficient. Twigs Capital Hilton, 16th and K Sts. NW. 393-1000, ext. 1621. L $4.75-$8.25, D $9.25-$15.50. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations required. Parking lot next door. Full bar service. Childrens prices. No-smoking section. The Two Continents 1420 F St. NW. 347-4499. L $4.50-$7, d $7.50-$15.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. Ae, cb, d, mc, v. rEservations suggested. Free parking in adjacent garage for two hours. Full bar service. 209 1/2 209 1/2 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 544-6352. L $10.95-$14.95, D $18. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service.

It's always spring at 209 1/2, the mauve of the walls repeated in the flowers and the multicolored Chinese service plates. Crowding like a full-blown garden are the wood tables with grassy mats, and plates flamboyantly garnished with greens, fruits and vegetables. Nothing -- no corner, no hors d'oeuvre -- is left less than inventions is a trendy collection of cold pastas and herbed seafood salads, grills and sautees with unexpected touches -- sauteed snails on the chicken, lamb chops served with aioli, bearnaise flavored with leeks. The fixed-price menus are expensive, nearly as high for lunch as for dinner, and the food can be glorious or slightly awry. The baba ghanouj bests even the Middle Eastern restaurants hereabouts, but hot dishes tend to be superior to cold dishes, which are inclined to be excessively herbed or at least unbalanced. The poached chicken dishes show how well the kitchen handles commonly indifferent preparations, and seafood are equally cosseted. For dessert -- have something. The desserts are all good, though strawberry broyege ought to be a required course. 219 219 King St., Alexandria. 549-1141. L $4-$10.50, D $8.50-$13.50. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking and nearby lot. Full bar service.

The great dishes of New Orleans are on the menu at 219. Though they lose something in translation, the restaurant serves pretty good food in lush surroundings and serves it graciously. A downstairs brick-lined bar and an outdoor cafe offer simple red beans and rice, gumbos and the like. Upstairs, several small rooms are appointed with fireplaces and ruby velvet chairs, silver napkin rings and salt shakers. Seafoods are the mainstay of the menu -- fiery barbecued shrimp with heads and shells intact (too fiery and less savory on my last visit), crabmeat with hollandaise and artichoke bottoms in puff pastry (excellent, except for acrid artichokes), catfish fried in crabmeal, oysters pan-broiled with lemon and butter, oysters Bienville. Fish is poached in parchment, but so is chicken, to a unique succulence that turns it into perhaps the best dish on the menu. The ingredients at 219 are excellent -- big lumps of crabmeat, fresh fish -- but the kitchen is just competent rather than talented, so that overseasoning or overthickening are common. Still, from the orange-scented ramos gin fizz to bananas Foster, a dinner (or brunch) at 219, accompanied by a sprightly -- and reasonable -- bottle of vouvray, is sufficiently reminiscent of New Orleans to recommend the trip. o The Upstairs Maid 1992 Chain Bridge Rd., Tysons Corner. 790-9000. L $3.95-$8.75, D $3.95-$14. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. Ae, cb, d, mc, v. Reservations suggested.Parking lot. Full bar service. Valle's Steak House 1380 Piccard Dr., Rockville. 948-1775. L $2.95-$5.95, D $4.95-$15.95. 6710 Commerce St., Springfield. 971-4200. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. No-smoking section. Vie de France 1990 K St. NW. 659-0055. L $3.25-$4.95, D $3.95-$12.95. L daily, D daily ex Sat. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted for dinner only. Parking garage. Full bar service. Children's prices. No-smoking section. Viet Nam Bistro 1836 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 528-8886. L $2.75-$4.50, D $5.25-$7.75. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service.Children's meals.

Viet Nam Bistro has grasscloth walls and lacy bamboo hanging lamps. Arrangements of bamboo poles suggest huts and gardens. White enamel chairs with woven seats are pulled up to tables covered with soft orange cloths. The room is fresh and colorful, discreetly exotic. One must by all means try the beef noodle soup to find the interplay of tastes that is so intriguinng in Vietnamese food. For the greatest variety and most reasonable prices, you can sample combination platters. They include cha goi and two or three other dishes -- skewered beef, pork or chicken, carmel pork or chicken curry; turmeric baked fish with steamed quiche. Their variety, however, outshines their character. Steamed quiche is a dish to order, and apollo seafood is even better if you like squid. The restaurant presents, at moderate prices, a choice of more than two dozen main dishes stretching across stir-fried Chinese-style dishes to curry to chicken and fish. Despite flaws, dinner is likely to be a treat to the senses. And on weekend nights you can dance it off as Vietnam Bistro turns into a disco. Vietnam Georgetown 2934 M. St., NW. 337-4536. L $2.95-$3.25, D $3.50-$6.45. Open daily. No credit cards. No reservations. Street parking. Full bar service.

Fortunes shift, and fans shift back and forth between Georgetown's two side-by-side Vietnamese restaurants with this, the corner one, being the insiders' current favorite. Small and spare, with flimsy tables huddling close, Vietnam Georgetown's main environmental asset is its outdoor cafe in the rear. Its culinary assets are highly peppered and faintly sweet cha gio (spring rolls) and crab farci, which is the same crab-pork filling in larger measure, without the rice-paper crust. Its sweet-hot red cornstarched sauce is strange, but it grows on you. Several dishes are unexpectedly sweet, the oddest of them being beef with cinnamon, pinwheels of lmeat crisped and sauced with plenty of sugar in a cinnamon-spiced syrup. Rustic and reasonable, with creditable food, Vietnam Georgetown is a neighborhood ethnic restaurant that just doesn't happen to be in an ethnic neighborhood. Vincenzo 1606 20th St., NW. 667-0047. L, D $6.75-$14.75. L, D daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service.

Vincenzo is a purist's Italian seafood restaurant, serving only seafood and almost always fresh seafood. It looks quintessentially Italian, with pristine white walls and tile floors, only a few small mirrors and colorful displays of antipasti and pastries. Start with pasta, perhaps linquine with crab and tomato or with clams, or risotto to share among several people. Main dish possibilities are grilled fish or shrimp -- charcoal grilled -- sauteed bay scallops, seafood stews with wine, herbs and tomatoes; or some variation of fritto misto, beautifully fried. The menu is simple, and the chef generous with herbs, wine, tomatoes and attention to detail. Viva 4409 John Marr Dr., Annandale. 941-5494. L $2.25-$3.25, D $4.50-$6.25. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Parking lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. The Warehouse 214 King St., Alexandria. 683-4112. L $3.10-$4.90, D $3.10-$8.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. No reservations. Street parking and nearby lot. Full bar service. The Washington Palm 1225 19th St. NW. 290-9091. L $4.50-$10 per lb. lobster, D $10.50-$10 per lb. lobster. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. Ae, cb, d, mc, V. Reservations required. Valet parking for dinner only. Full bar service.

Everybody who knows of the Palm knows it as a no-nonsense steak and lobster restaurant with giant portions, priced accordingly, of very good simple meat and potatoes. Characters on the walls and characters serving the food, green and white checked tablecloths, those set the hale and hearty scene. Those who really know the Palm, though, recognize lunch as an unheralded bargain. Soup at 75 cents -- sometimes good, sometimes not -- and a very good simple salad at the same price fill out a meal of mountainous portions of superlative chicken or shrimp salad, hash or omelets or chopped steak with irresistible homemade potato chips called Palm fries. At the Palm, don't stake all on steak. Watergate Dining Room and Terrace 2650 Virginia Ave., NW. 965-5252. L $5.75-$12.50, D $10.25-$21. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service. The Wharf 119 King St., Alexandria. 836-2834. L $3-$8.25, D $6.25-$11.50. L daily ex Sun, D daily.AE, MC, V. No reservations. Street parking and nearby lot. Full bar service. Children's prices. Yaldizlar 2605 24th St., NW. 265-7233. L $2.25-$4.95, D $5.95-$12.95. Open daily. D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Full bar service. Children's prices. Yenching Palace 3524 Connecticut Ave., NW. 362-8200. 905 N. Washington St., Alexandria. 836-3200. L $2.95-$5.75, D $4-$9. Open daily. Ae, cb, d, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Parking lot. Full bar service. Zachary's 6238 Old Dominion Dr., McLean. 821-1976. L $3.50-$7.50, D $7.50-$13.95. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested, required on wekends. Parking in front. Full bar service. Children's meals.

You just think you have seen salad bars unless you have tried Zachary's. It has baba ghanouj and taramasalata, cucumbers with yogurt and mashed potato dip, all to be scooped with toasted pita sprinkled with oregano. To top your iceberg lettuce there are pointy black olives and feta cheese, onions and beets and the usual Bacos. White bean salad or corn salad serve as side dishes to the side dishes. Follow your appetizer-salad bar with a pile of crisply grilled lamb chops saturated with garlic, oregano and lemon, or similarly seasoned baked fish filet, or something more complex like filet of beef in wine sauce or lamb baked with tomato. Zachary's serves Greek food with a sunny, warm disposition in a shopping center restaurant that has expanded to several rooms.You need not spend more than $25 a couple, unless you give in to the persuasion of hot appetizers (crisp, buttery spanakopita, tomato-sweetened squid, spicy sausage) and excellent baklava or superbly delicate creme caramel, ouzo or retsina or liquor-dosed coffee. Don't expect anything fancy, just lots of straightforward food in a heavy fog of garlic, lemon and oregano to remind you of the Mediterranean.