Among the most steady and professional of the Ethiopian contingent seems to be the Red Sea; its two floors -- packed tightly with tables -- are inclined to be crowded, even on a weekday night.

The laminated plastic menu includes sandwiches, salads, even a wine list. The mode of eating, though, is as casual, easygoing -- and delightful -- as any Ethiopian restaurant: a platter daubed with your choice of spiced meat stews and sautes, lentil purees and stewed vegetables forms the centerpiece. It is lined with tangy fermented pancakes called injera, and more of them -- served cold -- are folded and stacked on a plate for you to tear into pieces to substitute for silverware. You use the pancakes to scoop up bits of the meats and vegetables, and thus while away a very savory evening. The stews are varying in pepperiness, and bear a family resemblance to curries; there are also wonderful saut,es of beef or lamb with onions and hot green chilies -- called tibs -- and buttery spiced raw chopped beef. You can start with a chewy but well-seasoned meat -- or a lentil-stuffed fried turnover quite similar to India's samosas. And there are a few salads, but the lentil salad was not nearly so interesting as the rest of the food. Probably the best accompaniment to all this is beer, but the sweet golden honey wine and the Algerian cabernet sauvignon which sells for under $7 a bottle are experiences you might want to add to your repertoire.

An evening at the Red Sea is something like having a picnic in a busy airport, but it is as inexpensive a dinner as one can find in Washington. 2463 18th St. NW. 483-5000. L, D $3.95-$7.15. L, D daily. AE, C, CB, DC, MC, V. Res sugg. Full bar.