NEW ORLEANS CAFE 1790 Columbia Rd. NW. 234-5111. Open: Sunday through Thursday 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. No reservations. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $1.95 to $4.75, entrees $2.85 to $12.95. I'VE WATCHED THE NEW ORLEANS CAFE

grow from a simple coffee-and-beignets snack bar to a full-fledged and very popular restaurant, and along the way it has always gotten better. The New Orleans chicory coffee with hot milk has continued to be good, and the beignets can be beat only by the calas (rice fritters).

Now I like not only the food but also the spirit of the place. The service has grown more enthusiastic, the menu is broader, and the neighbors gather for routine Sunday brunches or midweek suppers. At breakfast or brunch I try to break the eggs creole habit, only because I also love eggs hussarde and such, but I can't resist the spicy sausage, slabs of fried grits and creole sauce with big chunks of onions and peppers. I also can't pass up the soups -- the red bean is a sleeper, far more zesty than it sounds. The big, gooey po' boy sandwiches are so terrific that I haven't even gotten around to the muffuletta. In all, the food is so generously portioned that I can never try as much as I hope, and so reasonably priced that I order more than is reasonable. The cafe' combines much of what has made New Orleans famous, from the coffee and beignets of the Cafe du Monde to Central Grocery's muffulettas to the Cajun souls of such kitchens as Chez Helene and Eddie's. No pretensions, no formalities, just good, zesty food. NEW ORLEANS EMPORIUM 2477 18th St. NW. 328-3421. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to midnight. All major credit cards. Reservations required for dinner. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $1.50 to $10, entrees $12 to $19. JUST AS THE JAPANESE WILL ALWAYS EAT sushi, even when it is no longer fashionable in America and the trendies have moved on, Cajun cooking will continue as a southern mainstay. The New Orleans Emporium, Washington's most adventurous Cajun restaurant, shows signs of remaining a classic. Its menu is nearly all seafood (though one of the few exceptions, blackened prime rib, happens to be one of the best things served here). And now you can order small as well as large portions of most dishes, so you can sample a wide variety of the restaurant's specialties at once.

To me the appetizers are best, and I'd be happy to nibble my way through them, starting with a shooter (an oyster and cocktail sauce in a shot glass of vodka). I'd go on to a trio of oysters baked with three different dense, rich toppings, or a trio of potent soups. Fried catfish beignets would be inevitable, along with cold plump mussels in a fiery creole mustard sauce. Then I'd have to choose among the blackened redfish cake (unless I was getting blackened redfish fillet or prime rib as an entree), fried crawfish called Cajun popcorn, stuffed mushrooms with a deceptively smooth shrimp mousse that starts delicately but finishes with a punch, and fried, dough-wrapped "purses" filled with crab, shrimp or crawfish. The purses are heavy eating, though, and I probably would have filled up on the house muffins and ham-spiked biscuits by then. Once upon a time I would have ordered the barbecued shrimp, but while the shrimp are still the freshest and plumpest around, the sauce is too tomato-dosed for my taste. In soft-shell crab season, I would certainly include those in my feast.

All this is eaten in a noisy tiled dining room, recently expanded but still closely packed and casual. Prices tend to be high (except for the $1.50 oyster shooter) or at least add up to a lot with all those little dishes. The New Orleans Emporium is for friendly, noisy evenings or Sunday brunches when your appetite is raring to tackle a lot of powerful eating. NORA 2132 Florida Ave. NW. 462-5143. Open: for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. No credit cards. Reservations suggested. No pipes or cigars. Prices: appetizers $3.50 to $6.25, entrees $11.95 to $16.95. MANY OF US WHO LOVED NORA IN ITS FOR-mative years turned away when it got fancy and expensive. We missed the hominess. And we railed at the haute cuisine prices. Now Nora has hit a middle ground by reducing its prices -- they are moderately high now, not overpriced -- and simplifying its style. Tortured sauces have disappeared. In fact, sauces have pretty much been reduced to seasonings. In all, the food is no less beautiful, but it does seem less fussed with.

Some dishes are being served at Nora and the Nora-owned City Cafe: the wonderful goat cheese and roasted peppers, for instance. And like those at City Cafe, some of the best dishes at Nora are the ones that sound plain. Salads are stunningly good. My recent favorite was a grilled eggplant with arugula and goat cheese. Among main dishes, that under-utilized meat species, pork, is here infused with tarragon and grilled, a lovely, flavorful piece of meat. And grilled fish is enhanced by such strong flavors as ginger, coriander and red onion relish. Even more important is the quality of ingredients, from fish that taste really fresh to chickens that have a real bird flavor to bright, plump vegetables. With entrees come smoky grilled vegetables, perhaps, and sometimes brown rice, as if to remind you that this is a restaurant strongly committed to wholesomeness.

That doesn't get in the way of some delicious desserts, my favorite being the fruit crisps, crunchy and nutty and buttery.

Nora is a serene environment, in a simple early-American style, with wonderful quilts on the walls. The service shows intelligent training. The wine list is interesting, the menu is sensible and intriguing. Do I have a complaint left? Yes: I still find it outrageous that Nora does not take credit cards, though I admit I admire its accepting personal checks. OCCIDENTAL GRILL ROOM 1475 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 783-1475. Open: Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. No cigars or pipes. Prices: appetizers $3.75 to $7.95, entrees $5.95 to $15.95. NOSTALGIA DREW ME HERE, BUT THE

cooking keeps me coming to the Occidental Grill Room. I love the gallery of old photos lining the walls. I only wish they would be rotated occasionally so I could look at the ones near the ceiling. And the soft leather-upholstered and wood-lined booths are utterly comfortable. The Occidental has wide-open spaces with the coziness of an old club. The problem is that those wide-open spaces reverberate with noise on a crowded night.

Then the food comes in to compensate. The appetizers are familiar ones with a twist: Marinated shrimp are lightly grilled and drenched in a spicy roasted-tomato and chili salsa; sausage is homemade and spiked with an apricot-mustard marmalade. Even fried mozzarella is different here, studded with prosciutto, capers, sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts.

For the main course, I can't resist the grilled swordfish club sandwich on brioche, though sometimes the swordfish is more succulent than at other times. And the Occidental's ever-changing menu usually has some variation on a scallops-and-bacon theme, whether a salad or a brochette with a buttery, tangy sauce on deep-green, barely cooked spinach. Plain stuff is fine here (the steak and the grilled game hen, for example), and it illustrates the modest pricing structure (the steak is $15.95, the hen, $9.95). The plain old steakhouse accompaniments are also impeccable, particularly the deep-fried onion crisps.

The menu at the Occidental strikes a satisfying balance between tradition and invention. And the fine cooking blends them deliciously. OCEAN GARDEN 8739 Flower Ave., Silver Spring. 587-3833. Open: Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 1 to 10 p.m. Choice, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $1.80 to $3.50, entrees $4.50 to $8.50; dinner appetizers $2.50 to $4.95, entrees $5.50 to $18.95. IT IS SUCH A SURPRISE, THIS BIG JAPANESE- Chinese restaurant in a Silver Spring shopping center. It nearly vibrates with the blue of the tablecloths and the glimmering of the large fish tank that decorates the main dining area. With its long sushi bar and its double layer of hanging plants, it is unexpectedly fancy and lush.

Since the restaurant is attached to a seafood market, you expect the fish to be very fresh, and it is. Furthermore, the selection is highly varied, with about half a dozen whole and filleted fish available each evening. The sushi bar, however, is not as well stocked as those downtown, nor is its fish as pristinely fresh. And the long menu -- with a full selection of Chinese and Japanese dishes -- leads you to expect that at any time you might have the option of six or eight different lobster dishes, but inexplicably they were unavailable on my last visit.

In truth, the cooking is not wonderful. Chinese sauces can be thick and overbearing, as they were on my spicy shrimp and pork duet. And the showy stir-fried flounder presented on its deep-fried frame was utterly fresh, but the frame was not fried as crisply as it should have been, and nothing distinguished the stir-fry except the quality of the fish itself.

What make this restaurant a standout for me are four things: Its waiters are helpful and communicative, its fin fish are reliably fresh, its Polynesian drinks are equal to the best in town, and its fiery appetizer known as "northern tasty wonton" is the most delectable plate of slithery savory dumplings you are likely to find anywhere. Besides, the option of beginning a Chinese meal with sushi is irresistible. LE PAVILLON 1050 Connecticut Ave. NW. 833-3846. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m., for dinner Monday through Saturday 6:45 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations required. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $9 to $14, entrees $19.50 to $26, fixed price $25 to $38; dinner entrees $26 to $32, fixed price $70, $85, $98. HAVING WATCHED THE BIRTH OF LE

Pavillon and its brilliant first years, I will probably always consider the restaurant a favorite no matter what happens. That said, I wonder what's happening this year. Yannick Cam is an extraordinary chef, but on my recent visits he was turning out some pretty ordinary food, and raising prices at the same time. To be sure, there are still highlights, but none that I haven't had before and before and before.

Cam's tiny beet ravioli topped with caviar and a green-and-ivory chive butter sauce are always lovely and delicious, and his carpaccio of salmon is a glory of paper-thin slices of salmon with coriander leaves showing through and caviar atop. But in its inaugural days, unlike now, Le Pavillon was a marvel of balance. No two sauces resembled one another, and crunch followed silkiness, tang followed richness, to keep even the most jaded taste buds at attention.

The menu features about a dozen appetizers and nearly that many main dishes, combining into a fixed-price meal ranging from $70 to $98. That means dinner can readily climb to $150 per person, even with a modest wine. For that price, one expects better than acrid, soupy risotto; sweetbread and foie gras flan that is bouncy and tough; or one appetizer and three main dishes garnished with the same intensely salty eggplant-bacon pure'e. The service is eager, enthusiastic and often well informed, except when a shallot flan comes, unexpectedly, with slices of rabbit that were not mentioned in its description, or when waiters interrupt a conversation for a description of the cheese and salad plate that runs several minutes long. Desserts are still quite stunning and delicious, as they have been for years, but they change so infrequently that they can't be meant for repeat business.

Le Pavillon seems to have hit a plodding middle age; I hope it is only a temporary mid-life crisis. PEKING GOURMET INN 6029 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church. 671-8088. Open: Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight. MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $1.70 to $5, entrees $4 to $7; dinner appetizers $2 to $6, entrees $5.50 to $12.50. THIS LITTLE STOREFRONT RESTAURANT has grown as big as a shopping center over the years and has become even better for it. The centerpiece of the menu is Peking duck, and there is no finer one in town. Roasted pure, simple and crisp, it is carved at the table in an impressive show. The skin is sliced in long golden strips and the meat scraped of fat and then carved into thin, tender, juicy slices -- three plates of them, with the legs and wings. The duck is served with a dozen excellent pancakes, a pile of slivered home-grown leeks and a bowl of thin, spicy hoisin sauce.

Beyond duck, there is plenty to choose from. Those pungent home-grown leeks are stuffed into wonderful fried dumplings (the plain meat dumplings are also good but not so unusual) or stir-fried with shrimp or pork slivers. The Peking gourmet chicken is an interesting variation on fried chicken, the small crunchy pieces dusted with bits of fried garlic. Juo-Yen shrimp is what other restaurants call salt-baked shrimp, and here it is a fine version of very big, plump shrimp in the shell, sizzled in hot salt so the shells are crisp and the juices sealed in, and topped with a garlicky, aromatic mince. Even ordinary dishes -- hot and sour soup, tiny spring rolls -- have a better balance of vivid flavors than most Chinese restaurants manage, though sometimes there is too heavy a hand with salt or soy sauce. In all, this is very good cooking, and despite the restaurant's size and bustle, the service is exceptionally gracious. PERRY'S 1811 Columbia Rd. NW. 234-6218. Open: for dinner Sunday through Friday 6 p.m. to midnight, Saturday 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations not required. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $1.25 to $4, entrees $5 to $10.50, sushi $1.50 to $4.50. SUSHI IS USUALLY EATEN IN HUSHED SUR-roundings. At Perry's, though, it is always a sushi party, with rock music and pink-and-aqua funk providing the backdrop in this spacious ex-disco. Upstairs is a large roof deck for a little more serenity. So the environment is fun on two levels. And the food is designed to back up the fun. Most of the menu is appetizers, with a few oriental-inspired grilled or steamed fish dishes in more serious portions.

I go for the sushi, not because it is the best in town but because it is perfectly fine and offers a wide selection, including some interesting sushi rolls -- flounder with shiso leaves, anything with asparagus in season.

But I don't stop at sushi. The "layered tuna," which is grilled to sear the surface but left raw within, is deliriously good. Tuna nuta, with sweet-salty miso sauce, runs a close second. And if you like fried oysters, you'll want to try Perry's version, coated with crisp shredded potatoes, a kind of fish-and-chips all in one. The menu also lists tempuras and teriyakis, various salads and cold dishes (skip the sesame noodles; they are better elsewhere). All to be washed down with Kirin beer in 19-ounce bottles.

Perry's gets impossibly crowded, and the cooking can't be counted upon in such conditions. But pick some time other than prime time, and you can enjoy one of the most original restaurants in Washington. PHILADELPHIA MIKE'S 7732 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. 656-0103. Open: Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Cash only. No reservations. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: breakfast $1.89 to $2.99, lunch and dinner entrees $1.89 to $6.75. IF YOU ARE FROM PHILADELPHIA, OR HAVE ever been to Philadelphia, you probably have an occasional craving for an authentic cheese steak. And having tried most of those available in the Washington area, I maintain that so far the only place that comes close to providing the real thing is a self-service sandwich place called Philadelphia Mike's. The beef is sliced thin and frizzled on the grill with onions and sweet pickled peppers. The cheese is, as you would expect, all-American processed stuff, although you can order an alternative. And you can get mushrooms, even lettuce and tomato, on your cheese steak if you are not bent on authenticity. The rolls are baked on the premises, softly crusted and close enough to the real thing. In all, it is a wonderful sandwich, available in three sizes and several variations. The hoagies have improved enough that they are worth investigating, too, but steak sandwiches are what make Philadelphia Mike's worth the trip. RT'S RESTAURANT 3804 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. 684-6010. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., Sunday 4 to 9 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.15 to $5.50, entrees $4.25 to $9; dinner appetizers $4.25 to $6, entrees $9.50 to $15. WHILE WE WAIT FOR THE SEAFOOD restaurant of our dreams, RT's can keep us happily occupied, at least through the first course. This is an unflossy and attractive little restaurant with friendly service and comfortable booths, the kind of place you might be drawn to in nearly any mood. While half its main dishes are meats, it is known for its fish dishes with a Cajun accent. Its prices are modest, and if you stopped after the appetizers you would consider it a remarkable bargain. Oysters 3 Way is a mere $5.50 for half a dozen oysters in little ramekins of three different spicy buttery sauces. Steamed mussels are unique -- as well as plentiful -- in a pungent tomato sauce with sausage. And shrimp are agreeably prepared in a sherry-sweetened version of russian dressing with impressive lumps of crab meat atop, or in the zesty Acadian peppered style that started in New Orleans' Italian restaurants. There is also a pleasant creamy she-crab soup, along with alligator stew and seafood chowder. Any one of these could be filled out for a fine meal.

Main dishes, though, show the kitchen's flaws. Shrimp, scallops and scrod cooked in a parchment bag were satisfactory in their texture, but the only taste that remained in memory after my last visit was bitterness. Blackened fish missed the point. It was merely thoroughly cooked fish covered with heat-darkened spices. And even the fish of the day tasted like the fish of yesterday.

Which leaves room for dessert. Make it pecan pie and ignore the crust, and you will have done just fine. SARINAH 1338 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 337-2955. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Saturday noon to 3 p.m., for dinner Tuesday through Sunday 6 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. No reservations. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.50 to $4, entrees $5.95 to $10; dinner appetizers $1 to $3.95, entrees $6 to $18. INDONESIAN FOOD IS AN EXOTIC RARITY IN Washington, and Sarinah's dining room is as exotic a space as I have found in the area. Through a small door on Wisconsin Avenue, down a long hallway and stairway is a tropical rain forest without the rain. Flagstone floors and a jungle of plants decorate the dining room, dark red tablecloths and flickering lamps dress it up, and gracious Indonesian waiters in traditional batik print shirts personalize it.

Indonesian food is not necessarily hot, but it is always seasoned with a complexity of spices to rival India's curries. And a meal at Sarinah can suit your mood for gentle or peppery, light or heavy. It can start with dough-wrapped appetizers -- variations on an egg-roll theme, but meatier and softer -- or some with mashed potatoes instead of dough. Whichever you choose, the sauces are more interesting than the standard Chinese offerings. Or dinner could start with a soup packed with everything from won tons to potato balls. Then there is gado gado, the famous Indonesian salad, made with cooked vegetables, fried bean curd and hard-cooked eggs in a dressing creamy with peanut butter and spirited with hot chilies. Sarinah's is not the liveliest version I have had, but I can never resist trying it. And there are satays, closely related to those little meat or shrimp kebabs available in Thai restaurants.

You can order a rijsttafel -- 10 small dishes surrounding a bowl of rice -- or concoct your own small version. I particularly like Sarinah's chicken dishes, not because of the chicken itself (it tends to be cooked to rigidity) but because the sauces are wonderful on their own and suit chicken meat well. I had been a fan of ayam bumbu rujak (hot and spicy grilled chicken) but have switched my allegiance to ayam panggang santen (grilled chicken in coconut sauce, which is dark, sweet and very spicy). The menu also lists a few beef, shrimp and bean curd dishes, plus a lamb curry and an egg foo yung. But save space on your table for a noodle or rice dish. If the rest of the meal is mild, I would make mine the spicy Javanese fried rice. If it is heavy on the chilies, I would include the mild Sarinah fried rice, studded with shrimp and chicken, the slightly chewy glutinous rice aromatic with those mellow Indonesian spices that taste nearly familiar but only nearly so.

As befits a tropical setting, beverages are important. Sarinah has some good Dutch beer and a few wines, a range of fruit juices and -- my substitutes for dessert here -- dark, sweet iced coffee in the Southeast Asian style and a sweet, pulpy and delicious fresh orange concoction called Mandarin orange float. 1789 1226 36th St. NW. 965-1789. Open: for dinner daily 6 to 11 p.m., for Sunday brunch noon to 6:30 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $5 to $10, entrees $17 to $25, brunch $8 to $15. 1789 HAS FULFILLED A LONG-HELD WISH

of mine, that this restaurant, which represents the 18th century so beautifully in its dining room, would reflect the 20th century more deliciously in its kitchen. For the past year, it has offered one of the most interesting American menus in town. Every culinary detail has had attention showered on it, from the bread, now crusty white and dark loaves, to the tossed salad, an extraordinary collection of wild greens and edible flowers in a perfectly balanced vinaigrette. The menu lists luxuries such as lobster and foie gras and caviar, but even more commendable, it features seasonal rarities among its seafood, vegetables and meats.

Alas, it also can fall short of expectations, most likely with main dishes that are merely correct rather than special. On my last visit I sampled pedestrian breaded sweetbreads and metallic-tasting spinach, perfectly cooked lamb in an undistinguished glossy brown sauce and unremarkable salmon in a sorrel sauce that showed none of that herb's special tang and bite.

Yet the first courses have been stunning, particularly a seafood sausage that put most others to shame, achieving a mysterious balance between airy lightness and moistness. Its seafood flavor was true and bold, surprising with such a light texture, and its sauce was vividly piquant. The crab cake was no less stellar. This chef obviously has a way with shellfish.

The final disappointments were a dessert souffle' that tasted so much of egg that it could have been an omelet and pie crust that had not a whisper of flakiness, though the pecan pie filling was terrific.

At other times the main dishes have hit all high notes, but 1789 is not yet as consistent as I'd like. It is, however, well on its way. SUZANNE'S 1735 Connecticut Ave. NW. 483-4633. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. Choice, MC, V. Reservations required for five or more. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $3 to $3.95, entrees $5.95 to $7.95; dinner appetizers $3 to $4.25, entrees $8.95 to $13.25. ARE THE WOMEN OF THIS CITY RESTING

on their laurels? Suzanne's, Helen's -- both have disappointed me this time around. True, I haven't managed to get to Suzanne's for dinner this year, and Suzanne herself says it is better than lunch. But why shouldn't lunch, too, be wonderful?

Sometimes it is. The hummus and a salad would make a lovely lunch, for the hummus is airy and lightly tangy, with the added dash of diced red bell peppers and salty nic oise olives. But the pita accompanying it has been cold and leaden. The torta, a kind of cross between a pizza and a meat pie, is always good, and with it comes a bright crunch of salad. And Suzanne's does clever things with chicken breasts, stuffing them with zesty mixtures and serving them cold or hot.

Yet so many things go wrong, and with a menu that changes twice a day, the errors are hard to predict. Even the salads -- curried chicken, pasta, sliced carrot -- have been intensely seasoned but tasted tired, while tortellini have been limp. Pa~te' has been too firm and too dry. And even a soft-shell crab sandwich has been fishy -- as well as flimsy.

Standards return to their former lofty level, though, with desserts. Suzanne's offers the best, in great array. Chocolate is celebrated in mousses, tortes, terrines and cheesecakes, teamed with raspberries, chestnuts or espresso. Lemons and limes are left to boast their tartness in excellent pies. Once, the chocolate chestnut ga~teau was my favorite. While it has gotten no less delicious, the chocolate raspberry torte now beats it out.

Suzanne's, one of the city's first wine bars, is attentive to its wine choices. And a good selection is available by the glass. Its chairs are not made for lingering, and its acoustics are atrocious, but this is a very urban restaurant, and that is its charm. It is a neighborhood gathering place, from the market and carryout downstairs to the tile tables of the upstairs town-house dining room. TABARD INN 1739 N St. NW. 785-1277. Open: for breakfast Monday through Friday 7 to 10:30 a.m., Saturday and Sunday 8 to 10:30 a.m.; for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m., Sunday 6 to 10 p.m. MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.50 to $6, entrees $4.95 to $12.50; dinner appetizers $4.75 to $6, entrees $15.25 to $19.50. IN WASHINGTON WE ARE SUCKERS FOR dining outdoors. Those balmy spring and fall days are such welcome compensation for summer heat and winter snows, and a protected garden is such a treat after traffic-gassed sidewalk cafe's, that Washington would probably make any garden restaurant a success, no matter what it served. The Tabard Inn needs no such charity. Its food can stand on its own, indoors or out.

The casual uncarpeted dining room is part of a cozy hotel that features such comfortable lounges that you might hope to have to wait for a table. The menu is the eclectic new American style, heavy on salads and grilled foods, with flavor twists such as mustard seeds along with black peppercorns on a pepper steak, sesame seeds coating salmon, garlic and walnuts topping grilled lamb -- which might be stuffed into pita at lunch after it had been offered as a main dish for dinner. Pasta sauces are light and pungent, my most recent a summery smoked trout, fennel, red onion and orange zest.

The Tabard Inn concentrates on fresh ingredients, particularly seeking wholesome alternatives such as naturally raised beef and nitrate-free bacon. And it serves those ingredients at their peak, in fresh ways. This is largely simple cooking, relying on combinations of flavors rather than on techniques. There are no great garnishing flourishes, no rare ingredients. Service is casual, and pretension is absent from both the kitchen and the dining room. Here is good, reasonably priced urban home cooking served in a neighborly fashion. TAKESUSHI 1010 20th St. NW. 466-3798. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch entrees $7.50 to $15, dinner entrees $7.50 to $28.50, sushi $1 to $8. THE SUSHI CRAZE MAY HAVE PEAKED, BUT this wonderful raw fish art will always be high on my list of favorite foods. If the mood strikes, you can eat lightly and quickly, or you can linger over seemingly endless sushi and sake. At Takesushi, where the dining room is tiny and spare, I would always choose to sit at the sushi bar and point to what I want, ordering bit by bit and adding new variations I see the chefs making for more regular patrons. The chefs are particularly communicative and see to it that you are satisfied, a welcome bonus since sushi bars can be frustrating if the chefs don't help you get your turn. In addition, these days the fish are impeccable -- my favorite, yellowtail, as fat and fresh as I could hope. The choice is wide, and if you ask and watch you will find seasonal specialties and such surprises as raw "sweet" shrimp. I start and end with yellowtail, perhaps minced with scallions in a seaweed-covered roll. I wouldn't miss tuna, would probably have sea urchin, salmon roe and smoked eel, and would occasionally add a roll of crisped salmon skin or minty shiso leaves with salty fermented plums. There are several kinds of clams to investigate, and always some unfamiliar delicacy.

Besides the food, there are charming rituals to partake in: The waitress brings you a wet cloth for your hands, the chef serves you a couple of tiny pickles at the end. And watching the chefs fashion special platters is a show in itself. But even without the frills, Takesushi remains a place where the subtle simplicity of very fresh raw fish and vinegared rice is expertly demonstrated. TAVERNA CRETEKOU 818 King St., Alexandria. 548-8688. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday noon to 3 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Friday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Saturday 4 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Monday. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.75 to $5.75, entrees $4.50 to $9.75; dinner appetizers $3.25 to $9.95, entrees $8.50 to $15.75. WHATEVER THE WEATHER, YEAR AFTER

year, Taverna Cretekou is a charmer. On a balmy Sunday, the garden, furnished as much with flowers as with wrought-iron tables and chairs, is a beauty. In less agreeable weather, the bright, fresh whitewashed dining room, with soft blue tablecloths and Greek batiks on the walls, is as pretty as a Greek village. The food is fine, particularly to be appreciated in an area with very few full-menu Greek restaurants. Rosemary-scented roast lamb, phyllo-wrapped spinach, cheese and meat pies, pastitsio, moussaka -- all are there, and if not the juiciest of meat, the flakiest of phyllo, it is all decent stuff, with a few highlights. And much of it is available at the Sunday brunch buffet, which reiterates to me with each visit that if I had my choice at Taverna Cretekou, I'd stick to the appetizers. My meal would be salty, fluffy taramosalata, well-oiled and fragrant stuffed eggplant, white beans in a garlicky vinaigrette, cucumbers with seemingly equal parts yogurt and garlic. Maybe it just reminds me of sunny afternoons in whitewashed courtyards on a Greek island. In fact, it is such a delightful environment that it reminds me of Greek islands I have never even visited. 209 1/2 209 1/2 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 544-6352. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch entrees (including appetizer) $12.95 to $17.95; three-course fixed-price dinner $22 to $30; pre-theater dinner between 6 and 7 p.m. $14.95. ONE OF THE FIRST RESTAURANTS TO venture into new American cooking, 209 1/2 is still coming up with new ideas. It changes -- its menu, its wall colors and decorations -- yet retains its basic personality, which is fresh, intelligent and imaginative. Whatever the season, there is some celebration of it at 209 1/2: a cold summer supper, holiday dinners for winter.

For its menu, 209 1/2 chooses food from around the world and fashions the simplest of dishes into bright still lifes with vegetables and garnishes. 209 1/2 is inventive -- turning bouillabaisse ingredients into a cold salad, adding pesto to its vichyssoise, combining nic oise seasonings with all-American soft-shell crabs. But it never overdoes the cleverness; there is nothing silly about this food. I must confess, though, that my choice of main dishes is likely to be guided by the accompaniments, for my primary reason for going to 209 1/2 is its zucchini pancakes, crisp lacy wafers that put all but the best potato pancakes to shame. Others are addicted to the rich, home-style sour cream chocolate cake or the winy figs Alice B. Toklas. For me, though, the vegetables are likely to be the highlights of the meal. UNION STREET PUBLIC HOUSE 121 South Union St., Alexandria. 548-1785. Open: Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. AE, Choice, MC, V. Reservations required for parties of eight or more. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $2.75 to $4.50, entrees $4.50 to $14.50. JUSE BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT EATING serious food doesn't mean that the food shouldn't be taken seriously in the kitchen. Thus, what is so satisfying about the Union Street Public House is that even casual food is treated with full-scale concern.

A hamburger here is something special, seasoned with caraway seeds and the house beer -- Union Street Virginia Native, which is simply the best American beer I have tasted -- then loosely packed, charcoal grilled and served with ripe tomatoes and curly lettuce on toasted rye bread. Spareribs are truly smoky and crusty, their meat firm from smoking rather than soft from steaming. French fries are fresh and crisp, with the faintly sweet, mealy taste of a proper frying potato. Smoked bluefish is moist and succulent, its sauce a knockout punch of horseradish.

There are fancy foods, too, nice little fried ravioli stuffed with crab, lobster fritters and sandwiches, and creamy seafood stews. The menu hits a variety of tastes, with bargain-priced steaks and grilled fresh fish for traditional meals or salads and pastas for lighter moments. Side dishes are not to be missed, particularly sweet-potato pancakes and apple fritters. And the desserts are American classics, from strawberry shortcake to key-lime pie to frozen custard and chocolate-chip pie, all nicely done. The wine list is an intelligent and careful collection, yet I can't resist the beers.

But people go to Union Street for gathering as well as eating. The bar is like Metro at rush hour, and the two dining rooms are noisy pubs, built for fun and camaraderie, though the walled booths do allow some privacy.

The Union Street Public House is a constant reminder that casual doesn't mean careless. VINCENZO 1606 20th St. NW. 667-0047. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2 p.m., for dinner Monday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m. AE, MC, V. Closed Sunday. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $5.75 to $6.75; lunch entrees $9.75 to $14.75, dinner entrees $11.75 to $19.75. I ALWAYS FEEL LIKE GOING TO VINCENZO, and I always look forward to it. Even so, once I'm here, I am always surprised by how much I like it. That's not because the food is flawless -- the last time I ate at Vincenzo the linguine with crab was too peppery and the grouper was under- cooked. But it is because it is a restaurant with a point of view. The food is not overwhelming -- it is light and straightforward. The menu is short and doesn't change much, but it hits a wide range within its Italian seafood limitations. And every part of it has been given careful attention, which has been maintained over the years.

First, the room is plain and simple, just tile floors and whitewashed walls with arched doorways. It looks utterly Italian, and though it is noisy it is not overcrowded. Second, the breads are wonderful, from the salt-crusted coarse squares to the chunky slices. The water is Italian bottled water, and the wine list is appropriate. Appetizers are few, but you hardly need more than the marinated vegetables and fish on the antipasto cart. The major changes over the years are that Vincenzo now offers butter with its bread, and its pastas are now homemade. That opens the door to delicious, rough, homey fish-filled ravioli topped with chopped mussels, and the highly herbed linguine with crab or clams is better than ever. Go on to very fresh fish and a variety of seafood (shrimp, scallops, squid -- nothing exotic) carefully stewed or lightly grilled or maybe fried in a lacy batter. For dessert, should that still be possible for you to consider, berries can be slathered with cold zabaglione, or there are a few classic Italian sweets such as chocolate-and-custard cream puffs, maybe a tart or zuccotto and homemade gelati. And the espresso tastes as rich and powerful as you would expect in a Roman coffee bar. Vincenzo is one of those rare restaurants that, despite virtually none of its staff seeming to be Italian, captures the nuances of dining in Italy. WINDOWS 1000 Wilson Blvd., Rosslyn. 527-4430. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $3 to $5.50, entrees $6.50 to $12.50; dinner appetizers $5 to $12.50, entrees $14.50 to $24.50; Monday through Friday three-course lunch special $7.95. THE MOST COMPELLING ASSETS OF

Windows haven't changed. The food is still beautifully prepared new American cooking with inventive twists, and the view from this spacious two-level dining room is a brilliant panorama of the Washington skyline (which now includes its rival restaurant Potomac). The service, though, has slipped. Whereas the waiters once were smooth professionals who had their faults but knew their job, my last visit found over-eager novices and the menus presented with a little speech about California cuisine. While the waiter stops short of introducing himself, this is too sophisticated a restaurant for such a rap.

In the kitchen, though, all seems to still be in order -- except for pastrami-cured salmon with a bitter aftertaste and a rather vapid smoked duck. And as long as I am complaining, I might as well chime in about the prices, which have taken a leap so that now you can pay more than $15 for an individual sausage and pepper pizza.

Overall, though, the food is delightful at Windows, and almost anything chef Henry Dinardo does with fish is worth noting. His first-course grilled salmon vinaigrette with papaya is a luscious balance, his main-course salmon is impeccable, and Windows is one of the few restaurants where I would bother to order cooked tuna, which is thick and juicy, enhanced with such surprises as walnut-mint butter.

Finally, though its desserts have ups (lemon curd tart with blackberries) and downs (summer pudding), Windows has improved your chances of ending on a high note. ::