President Reagan's flock has resurrected the Great Gatsby tradition of lavish party-giving, to the delight of caterers, clothiers and tuxedo-hire agencies. Elegant black-tie entertaining is in, complete with bowls to cleanse those dainty fingertips. So are veal dishes with raspberries, pricey wines and flaming desserts.

Recently, in Preparation for a seven-course sit-down dinner for 40, with 12 in help, a local caterer searched the world to find the two-inch long lobster tails his Saudi Arabian client recalled from a meal in Paris, and found them in Hong Kong. The lobster dish, langoustines baroutins, sauteed in butter with shallots and flambeed, was preceded by individual salmon coulibiacs (encrusted salmon). And the guests drank from $5,000 worth of Lalique crystal bought for the occasion.

But most Washingtonians are not armed with the millions of "Arthur." We must watch our personal budgets even more closely than David Stockman watches Uncle Sam's. Those of us not of the diplomatic set, not even of the smart set, on occasion feet pangs of jealousy, a sense of isolation. High life exists around us but is rarely ours to touch. But hearken. Imported lobster, regrets-only invitations and elegant crystal aren't necessarily the ingredients that make a good dinner party. Neither do individual salmon coulibiacs necessarily mark the ideal host.

The secret and the power of the memorable party lie within the reach of any Washingtonian armed with energy, enthusiasm and a soupcon of imagination. Such old-fashioned entertainment goals as intimacy, communication; involvement and fun are still the basis of the best party-giving during the holiday season. With this in mind, let's look at some of Washington's best parties, parties that put any lobbyist cocktail party or diplomatic reception to shame.

The champagne break-fast in bed for four was the donation of Ridgewell's Caterers to the National Symphony Orchestra annual auction. Interior decorator Bob Waldron bid $450 and received a gourmet Sunday brunch for himself and three friends catered by Ridgewell's co-owners, Bruce and Jeff Ellis -- who at one point joined the quartet in the king-sized bed.

Jeff Ellis explained: "When the symphony asked us to donate breakfast in bed for two we thought, 'How ordinary.' Breakfast for four would be much more fun and certainly more fantasy fulfilling. Instead of using ordinary waiters we thought that the owners of the business might do well instead."

At 11 a.m. on the appointed Sunday morning, dressed in their pajamas and bathrobes, there sat Waldron, friends Gloria Netherland and Eugene and Joan Smith in the livingroom of the Smiths' contemporary castle on the Potomac. In walked Ridgewell's ownersturned-waiters, Bruce and Jeff Ellis, dressed in ties, tails and white gloves. The Ellises, social friends of Waldron, waited on him with aplomb, serving miniature bagels with smoked salmon and champagne in the large, modern livingroom. The four celebrants then leaped into the Smiths' king-size bed that features a headboard made from a 400-year-old Nakashima oak tree trunk. The Ellises approached the giggling bedful bearing an elegant turkey-shaped silver serving tray.

"With his white begloved hand, Jeff removed the top," Joan Smith recalled, "and lifted one dead plucked chicken, holding it by its four-inch long neck, which seemed to stretch and stretch."

With tears of laughter rolling down six faces, strolling violinist Stephanie Myers appeared to spend the next four hours serenading the brunchers. The waiters Ellis reappeared with individual trays bearing bouquets of fresh spring flowers and a succession of delicacies -- fresh lobster and shrimp, eggs benedict, asparagus polonaise, raspberry cream and chocolate-dipped macaroons.

But the raucousness was not yet over. "At one point," said Jeff Ellis, "when Bob Waldron blew his silver whistle, Bruce and I took off our jackets and jumped into bed with them. We felt we were part of the party. I must admit it was creative but I don't want to do it again. This was much more work than mere catering."

More than four hours, one case of champagne and three courses later, the Ellises brought in the plat de resistance, cafe royale. As they ignited the spiced coffee with apricot liqueur, the Ellises, more versed in organizing fancy receptions and dinner parties than serving at them, almost set off a more substantial fire.

But all's well that ends well. Joan Smith observed, "It had to be people like us who knew each other well to have as much fun as we did. We've traveled together for years and so breakfast in bed wasn't such an awkward matter. I've never had so much fun anticipating and planning for an event. And I don't even like breakfast in bed! Friends kept dropping in during the morning because they couldn't believe we were going to pull it off. But we did."

You don't need $450 and a top Washington caterer to organize breakfast in bed for your own spouse or lover, however. If you can't find a castle on the Potomac, a cozy inn in the county might do. Surprise him or her with a breakfast or dinner tray filled with raspberries and champagne. And you really don't need four in bed to be intimate!

Weddings, funerals, christenings or bar mitzvoth usually start in religious chapels -- but a farewell party? Marilyn Durant had reason to celebrate. She had just graduated from Catholic University and won a fellowship to study in Italy for a year.Many people had been helpful to her during her stay in Washington, and she wanted to show her appreciation by throwing herself a farewell party.

So she organized her own folk mass at one of Catholic University's chapels followed by dinner and dancing in rented rooms in the nearby student union.All the guests participated in the guitar-accompanied folk mass songs and the religious procession. The mass itself was conducted in English with former teachers who were also priests acting as celebrants and lay friends reading the lessons. Molly Schuchat, Durant's former professor, remembers the event as the most enjoyable party of her life.

"This party had all the pleasures of a wedding with none of the difficulties," Schuchat said. "Everyone was involved in this upbeat occasion. There was an air of pleasure from the minute the priests began the mass to the last strains of Greek music. The mass, the food, the people, the music, the occasion were so delightful that strangers went up to each other saying, 'And how are you involved in Marilyn?' It was theater, religion, food, good company, great dancing."

Afterwards, the hundred or so guests, many of whom had never attended a mass, repaired to the student union for a pasta, salad and zuppa inglese dinner around a long table, accompanied by gallons of vin ordinaire. "The zuppa inglese was the most memorable I have ever tasted," Schuchat said. "Served in the most inelegant large flat metal cake pans, it was loaded with liqueur and piled high with fresh whipped cream and toasted almonds."

Zorba himself would have been delighted with the Greek dancing that followed. "None of us expected the exhilaration of this evening," said Schuchat.

Asparkling occasion is not the only excuse for throwing a party. Sometimes planning a gathering of friends can be the creative catalyst to climb out of a depression.

"We were all in the doldrums. It was February, everyone was incredibly poor and we needed a pick-up," said Ann Luzzatto, recalling the soup, salad and song party that she and friend Pam Lottmann threw about three years ago in Lottmann's comfortable Victorian house in Northwest Washington. The hostesses pooled friends to come up with 25 guests. Armed with a song, a guitar, a recorded or a willing but not necessarily good voice, they gathered in the spacious wood-beamed dining room. In addition to the imposing rectangular dining table, Lottmann set up two extra tables in the bay window area to achieve a crowded-restaurant atmosphere.

As huge vats of Julia Child's soothing provincial vegetable soup simmered on the stove in the kitchen, the guests helped themselves to inexpensive jug wine. The hostesses ladled out the soup and passed large bowls of green salad with a simple vinaigrette dressing and fresh, homemade French bread. The guests laughed and sang their way throughout the evening, exploring a broad repertoire: Italian Fascist and Communist, French drinking, show business and just plain American folk -- the kinds of songs we all know but rarely gather together to sing. In between, Lottmann and Luzzatto brought out four of the Luzzatto family's Italian apple crustada pies baked that afternoon.

"We had tried a soup, salad and charade party the year before but only two of the guests got into the charade act," Lottmann said. "You can tell right after the people have finished their first drink if the party is going to click. There is a warmth and intimacy in this kind of evening that gets lost in the tedious preparation of fancy dinner parties. The food was almost incidental. We just all wanted to be together and laugh."

Fortieth birthdays are nothing to laugh about. Rhoda Brown's friends must have sensed that when they planned her party. For two hours the "birthday girl" thought she was flying from Baltimore to Atlantic City. But when the plane landed at Glen Burnie Airport, and 75 friends greeted her arrival, she realized that she had been circling Baltimore all this time. The guests scattered into nine cars equipped with bakery boxes filled with cheese, crackers and ribbon-wrapped champagne. Each carload was given a scavenger hunt list of items related to travel, the theme of this evening.

"Another programmed evening," Washington artist Carol Goldberg recalled saying to herself. "I didn't care about finding a one-way ticket to Newark, N.J., a moon over Miami or a Japanese beetle. I suggested our going to a movie instead and returning for dinner. But as we got into the car I found myself totally involved in the creativity of the hunt. We started sharing ideas. Like singing a Beatle song in Japanese. I couldn't see our group mooning over Miami but what we could do was find a large yellow pillow to hold over the group while they were sun-tanning."

And so, twisting, turning and laughing, the nine cars searched the city for items to be included in the charade presentation after dinner and dancing at the pilot's home. "The best party I ever went to," Goldberg insisted the morning after the 3 a.m. fiesta. "We were so involved ourselves and we just laughed our way trying to find double- and triple-entendres for the searched objects. In Washington we tend to take ourselves so seriously at parties. It was a pleasure to just have some good fun with new and old friends."

You don't have to be whisked up into the air to be part of an evening full of fun. Shape your party to include the elements that make you you: your own style, your sense of humor, the food you like and, most important, the people you care about. Don't underrate good conversation. Clever wit and hearty laughter, the colorful side of stimulating discussion, are too often forgotten in the seriousness of Washington's entertaining. They don't have to be. Fun can be a prime focus, especially during the holiday season.

Washingtonians are chock-full of clever ideas. There are annual hat parties, costume parties, haggis-with-bagpipes parties, word game parties, sit-through - the-evening - reading-Shakespeare parties, piano-playing parties, and even the latest, hot tub parties. There are parties featuring 35 home-made desserts or 40th-birth-day-surprise parties where pin - the - tail - on - the - donkey games make one forget those passing years; there are hot air balloon 25th anniversary parties replete with forget-me-not picnic baskets, and even punk rock sitdown dinner parties. And how many of us have not looked forward to a party with six friends, good food, stimulating conversation and quiet music? To others, the best are the spur of the moment neighborhood parties to celebrate the first snow of the winter with hot buttered rum and popcorn.

For those interested in the gastronomic side of partying, there are progressive restaurant-to-restaurant dinner parties. Try that strip of M Street with Afghan, Indian, Vietnamese and Argentinian restaurants. Some Washingtonians with beer budgets serve champagne at their own gourmet dinner parties. Each person brings an elegant dish or a fine wine. At a fraction of the cost of dining out, they dine in.Eating at their own pace at their own place, they often disco their way between courses and calories or merely walk around the block to clear their tummies.

Any lover of good food will look forward to a dazzling array of international delicacies prepared by a host who really has gone to days and days of trouble in the kitchen. But to spread the work load more evenly, especially if you don't have hired help or the time to devote to an elaborate party, try a potluck party -- each guest brings his or her culinary specially. And what is more unexpectedly fun than getting a call from a friend inviting you to taste the salmon he just received from Washington state? Just bring over a salad to go with it. Together you prepare a dinner all the more delightful because it is spontaneous.

Most important, involve your guests as much as possible. Don't just invite them only to drop them as soon as they enter your foyer. Introduce them, make them feel that you really care. After all, you did invite them into your home because, presumably, you wanted them to share your hospitality.

So wake up, Washintonians. No matter what the social set is doing, the holiday season is just around the corner for you too. Let's have a party. Loosen up, stretch your imagination, start laughing, invite some friends over and eat, drink and be merry! ZUPPA INGLESE Serves eight 1 package ladyfingers 1/2 cup mixed liqueurs such as rum, sweet sherry, cherry heering, cognac or drambuie, or even sweet wine 1/4 cup chocolate chips 1/4 cup chopped walnuts 1/4 cup chopped toasted blanched almonds 3 egg yolks 3/4 cup confectioners' sugar 5 tablespoons flour 2 cups milk 1 teaspoon vanilla Grated peel of 1/2 lemon 1/2 pint whipping cream 2 tablespoons sugar 1 tablespoon rum

Line a round glass bowl with the ladyfingers. Dribble the liqueurs over, adding more if necessary. Make sure that the alcohol has been absorbed by the ladyfingers and sprinkle the chocolate chips and crumble the walnuts over them.

Make an Italian custard cream sauce by placing the egg yolks and the confectioners' sugar in the top of a double boiler. Keeping the pan off the heat, beat the eggs until they are pale yellow and creamy. Tablespoon by tablespoon gradually add the flour, beating after each addition.

In another pan bring the milk to the brink of a boil (when the edge begins to be ringed with little bubbles).

Add the hot milk very gradually to the egg-and-flour mixture, always off heat. Stir constantly to avoid lumps. Add the vanilla.

Place the saucepan over the lower half of the double boiler, in which the water has been brought to a boil. Cook for about 6 to 9 minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Do not let the mixture come to a boil; it's all right, however, for an occasional bubble to break slowly through the surface. The crema is done when it clings to the spoon with a mediumdense creamy coating.

Remove from heat, and stir for a few minutes until the bootom of the pan cools off a little. Mix in the grated lemon peel.

Immediately pour over the biscuits. This will cause the chocolate bits to melt slightly. Using a fork make sure the custard is well absorbed by the ladyfingers. Mix it around but don't mush it. The dish should be prepared the night before to this point.

Before serving whip up 1/2 pint of whipping cream with sugar and a little rum. Place on top of the custard mixture and decorate with toasted almonds.

Note: You can vary this basic recipe by adding poached pears or sliced bananas preserved with lemon juice before the custard mixture or by sprinkling chopped dates on the custard before adding the whipped cream. LUZZATTO FAMILY GROSTATA (APPLE-APRICOT TART) Makes one 10-inch tart 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 pound butter softened 2 egg yolks 1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour Pinch of salt 1/4 cup apricot preserves 5 greening or other good cooking apples, peeled, cored and sliced paperthin in crescent shapes

Place the sugar, butter, egg yolks, flour and salt in a large bowl. Using your fingers, combine ingredients until they come together. Do not overwork.

Butter a fluted false-bottom 10-inch tart pan. Take the ball of dough in your hands, flatten it in the center of the pan. Working with your fingers and a cake knife or wide spatula spread the dough evenly around the pan building up a side rim 1/2-inch thick. Make sure that you set dough into the flutes and spread evenly across the bottom. Flatten the top edge with a knife. Then cut evenly around the side circle above the pan so that the tart will have a neat crust. Then starting on the outside edge take your apple slices and begin overlaying them one on top of the other forming a spiral ending up in the center.

Place the jam in a saucepan and heat over a low heat until it liquefies and, using a pastry brush, paint daintily over the apples and visible crust. (At this point there should be no visible crust except that crust at the edge.)

Bake in 450 degrees oven on bottom shelf 15 minutes (Make sure to place the tart on top of a cookie sheet to catch the drippings.) Reduce oven to 375 degrees and finish cooking for another hour or until crust is deep golden brown. Bring to room temperature, unmold and put on a platter or serving dish. RIDGEWELL'S CAFE ROYALE Serves 10 12 whole cloves 4 strips orange peel 4 strips lemon peel 4 strips lime peel 10 cups hot freshly brewed coffee 1/2 cup light brown sugar 1 1/2 cups orange juice 2 cinnamon sticks 2 teaspoons granulated sugar Rainbow (multi-colored) granulated sugar (optional) 2 to 4 ounces (or to taste) triple sec, rum, peach, apricot or whatever brandy is available in your bar 1 cup whipped cream

With a knife or icepick punch four small holes on each orange, lime and lemon peel strip. Poke the cloves through. (This step enables you to retrieve the cloves easily before serving the coffee.)

Combine all the items except the colored granulated sugar, the liqueur and the cream in an open pot and simmer together until a nice steam is formed.

While heating dip each parfait glass in a little orange juice and colored granulated sugar.

When the coffee is steaming place the liqueur in a small chafing dish or a mere saucepan and flambe. When igniting, be careful to keep the flaming liquor under control. Pour the ignited flambe into the hot coffee.

Then fill each parfait cup with coffee. Add a dollop of whipped cream and serve.