In the Howard Inn, 2225 Georgia Ave. NW. 462- 5400. L $3.25-$8.25, D $9.50- $19.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Mon. Sun brunch. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Res sugg on weekends. Valet parking for dinner.

It may not be downtown, but Joplin's is certainly a downtown restaurant. The menu is a mixture of Europe, New York and the South: you can find gumbo, escargots, flaming beef brochette and fried catfish. But the key to success is the chef's instinct for cooking seafood. For soups, try crab soup or red snapper chowder; for appetizers, the oysters Rockefeller are fresh and moist. For main dishes, try the seafood sampler, at $10.50 a fine value that includes crisply breaded and flavorful shrimp, spicy crab cake and very good fried scallops and fish. The frying here is very competent; catfish fillets, for instance, are lightly coated with corn meal so that the fish is moist and the crust greaseless.

But this same kitchen serves dried-out ribs and veal Oscar that is heavily breaded and topped with tough, dry asparagus. Desserts taste no better than those from a supermarket bakery. Sunday brunch--a buffet of beef stew, shrimp creole and eggs and bacon, among others--is notable for its fried chicken.