"They always look surprised to see somebody," said my companion as we stood at the self-service counter of O'Brien's in Bethesda while we waited to have our orders filled. The people at O'Brien's are as nice as can be, but the whole procedure is slow and often confusing. The greater problem, though, is that the food at O'Brien's these days tastes tired. The meats are soft, limp, dry. There is smokiness but little meat flavor left to them. And the barbecue sauce is sweet and ketchupy. How the mighty have expanded. This once-wonderful barbecue restaurant has spread over the Washington area and lost its character in the process.

It is still modestly priced. And happy hour offers enough free food that you wouldn't even want dinner if you knew what was good for you. Portions are still plentiful. But the minced pork has had its crusty bits steamed out of it, the big meaty ribs have as much bounce to the bite as turkey roll, and the brisket crumbles if you merely look too hard at it. 7305 Waverly St., Bethesda. 654-9004. L $3.90-$8.95, D $3.90- $8.95. L, D daily. MC, V. Full bar.