Evenings, open at 6 p.m., dinner at 7, show at 8:30. Sunday matinee: open at 1 p.m., dinner 1:45 to 2:45, show starts at 3. Prices (drinks and tip not included), $16 Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday evening; $18.50 Friday evening, $19.50 Saturday evening, $13.50 Sunday matinee. Drinks, $1.25 to $3.50, Wines $5.50 to $18. AE, MC, V. Reservations necessary. No smoking evenings available. Directions: Take I-66 to the Route 234 exit (Manassas South). Turn left at the first traffic light and drive a quarter-mile.

When restaurant critics describe $40 dinners for two as "moderate" and theater tickets easily cost $20 a seat, it's not surprising that dinner theaters, which offer one-stop entertainment for less than $20 a person (plus drinks, wine, and tips) are becoming so popular.

It's easy enough to regard dinner theater as middlebrow. The quantity of food served is often more impressive than the quality, you are more likely to see Gypsy than Waiting for Godot, your waiter may double as an actor in the show and you may be seated at a table with strangers.

If you choose a good dinner theater, however, and approach it with a somewhat different set of expectations than you would bring to Le Lion d'Or and the Arena State, it's not a bad way to spend an evening -- particularly if you are entertaining someone who finds the theater either intimidating or uncomfortable. Children find it both friendly and grownup; and one regular told me she likes it not only because it is a good buy but because the patrons behave themselves. (Whether she was comparing it to nightclubs, or to theaters where patrons chatter away as if they were watching television, I'm not sure.)

The Hayloft Dinner Theatre in Manassas is an example of dinner theater at its best: plain food and plenty of it, a surprisingly professional stage play (Chapter Two when we attended, though musicals are often performed), and a generally comfortable and efficient nightclub-style set-up. You watch the play from the table where you eat, sipping a drink as you watch, if you like, although no drinks are served during the performance.

People traffic is unquestionably Hayloft's biggest problem. Housed in a giant barnlike structure, the theater seats 356 in a tiered, semicircular arrangement around a small but cleverly designed stage. At 7 p.m., Hayloft's host and warm-up joke teller introduces the buffet hostess, who introduces the buffet. Tadum: a curtain opens and you are staring smack at two giant ice sculptures and two of the most gorgeous 75-pound hunks of steamship round of beef that I have ever seen.

People who complain of restaurants that serve portions too large should dine elsewhere. Much of the appeal of Hayloft's spread is the challenge to see how much you can eat, how fast -- and the successful glutton clearly has to arrive early to get a ticket on the starting line-up. To arrive on time, as we did, is to invite both moderation and anxiety -- because, as the clock ticks its way to showtime, the hostess escorts you to the two buffet tables in the order of your arrival, using a ticket system that seems both fair and, to the unitiated, heartbreaking: by the time we went back for seconds there was no more rare.

As we waited our turn, nibbling nervously on crackers and "fromage mousse" (cheese spread), I was actually worried that I wouldn't get to see the table decorations. The food sculptures that enliven Hayloft's buffet tables are so charmingly done that they truly make the food look more inviting. Radishes, olives pickles, tomatoes, carrots and peppers are mounted on a frame in the shape of a cactus; sesame seed rolls are served from a bread basket made of bread; ham slices lie in front of a ham disguised as a tombstone (I think), and poisson a la chef Georges is the most intricately decorated fish I have ever seen, though such a surfeit of cuteness has its drawbacks: our portion of poisson was tinged with blue icing, acceptable in a piece of cake, not so appetizing on a fish. Between sculptured food, one found simple bowls of rice, pilaf, green beans, green salad, spinach salad and (though I didn't see it) noodle salad. The menu is substantially the same from show to show.

Was the food good? Yes. Not great, but good. I think one reason Hayloft's buffet table succeeds is that instead of overextending itself with exotic recipes that don't quite work, the kitchen sticks to the tried-and-trues of the banquet circuit, doesn't overcook the meat, and doesn't appear stingy. (No Jell-O salad! No macaroni and cheese!) All right, nothing is particularly memorable, apart from the monumental beef -- the green beans droop with overcooking and the peculiar napoleon served by the waiters appears to have met its Waterloo -- but judged in terms of what you get for what you pay, I'd give Hayloft a friendly pat on the back.

Of course, you pay a price. That Hayloft can serve 356 people both firsts and seconds, clear the table, serve dessert and coffee (quite good coffee, and all you want), and start the show more or less at 8:30 is a testament to America's training at the fast-food table -- but it can also give you the feeling you are being rushed. Moreover, some of the tables are closer to cocktail size than dinner size, and to be seated near the rush-hour traffic to the buffet tables would clearly be maddening. (Incidentally, the first-come, first-served policy doesn't affect where you sit, which is determined by when you buy your ticket and what you ask for.)

One thing may puzzle you: how to tip. You pay for your tickets as you come in, and then if you order drinks or wine you pay again. Since the price of the ticket includes the play, we didn't know on what basis to tip, but were told that it is customary to to tip 15 percent of the bar bill.

And a word of warning to fresh-air buffs: Although no smoking is allowed during the performance, enough smokers go crazy after dinner and at intermission to create a thick cloud that hovers over the audience the rest of the evening and made us yearn for goggles and oxygen. We didn't know, our first night out, that while Hayloft doesn't have a no smoking section, it does have no smoking nights.