ANITA'S 147 W. Maple Ave., Vienna. 938-0888. Open: Sunday through Thursday 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Cash only. No reservations. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $1.75 to $3.50, entrees $2.75 to $7.75; breakfast specials $2.50. YOU KNOW IT IS AN AUTHENTIC NEW MEX-ican restaurant when even the children's menu lists bean burritos with green chili sauce. Anita's, which looks like a redecorated doughnut shop, is now the headquarters of a chain of seven restaurants, including branches in Santa Fe, N.M., and California. And it is the only true southwestern restaurant I have found in Washington. The chilies come from New Mexico, but there's more to it than just authentic chilies.

All the meals come with sopapillas (though not all the sopapillas are thoroughly fried). The refried beans are creamy and cheese-covered; the red rice is spunky with raw scallions. Best of all, though, is the flavor of the red and green chili sauces. On my last visit, the green chili sauce was watery, but it still tasted earthy and authentic. And the carne adovada -- braised pork with red chili sauce -- was as pungent as any in Santa Fe. The menu lists all the usual enchiladas, tacos, tamales and burritos. Platters are hefty, service is friendly, the Tecate is cold, and the prices are low. It is still a bare-bones storefront cafe', as it should be for diners to enjoy real New Mexican chili verde. L'AUBERGE CHEZ FRANC OIS 332 Springvale Rd., Great Falls. 759-3800. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Sunday 2:30 to 7:45 p.m. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Reservations required. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: fixed price $21.95 to $26.75. BACK IN THE DAYS WHEN FRENCH RESTAU-rants were considered snooty and intimidating, L'Auberge Chez Franc ois gave French restaurants a good name. It is gracious, informal and friendly. What's more, it has the setting, the furnishings and the air of an authentic French country restaurant. Nowadays, French restaurants in general are far less haughty, so Chez Franc ois doesn't fill that need. Yet it is no less popular -- it still requires two weeks to get a reservation for most evenings.

No wonder. L'Auberge Chez Franc ois is at the end of a depressurizing ride through wooded countryside, yet it is a mere half-hour from downtown. The rustic interior -- white walls with dark wood accents, painted murals and grandmotherly fabric-covered lamps -- feels comfortable. The menu is organized into fixed-price four-course meals at moderate prices (most are $22 or $26, with a few supplemental items, and one family dinner at $16.75 including a glass of wine). The wine list is also gently priced, and there is good representation from Virginia and the owners' home region, Alsace.

While all that is reason enough to frequent Chez Franc ois, I find even more reasons these days. The kitchen is at its best ever. Nowhere in Washington have I found better French country food -- and that is the kind of food that is appropriate to this environment. True, I head upscale for the house special aperitif, champagne with raspberry liqueur. Then I continue to the assortment of pa~te's and crudite's, the most typical of French fixed-price hors d'oeuvres. Pa~te's here are finely crafted, their seasonings and textures impeccable. Or I might choose the garlic sausage in puff pastry, and if quiche is on the hors d'oeuvre list, I don't pass it up.

As for main courses, while the meat choices are tempting and the souffle'-topped salmon is the signature dish, my routine would insist on the choucroute, a magnificent arrangement of sausage, ham, duck, chicken and bacon on mellow sauerkraut. This is not to slight the other dishes -- a recent trout with bits of lobster and shiitake mushrooms in a dill-butter sauce was delightful -- but to recognize that such a choucroute is a rare treat on this side of the Atlantic.

Desserts are an equally difficult choice, for there are always fresh fruits in gratins, tarts and other guises. But again, I would opt for the traditional dishes in Alsace, for they are better here than you would find them in most restaurants of Alsace. I try to reserve room for a piece of plum tart, which is simply fresh plums in a very light, crisp pastry shell, with a bit of smooth homemade ice cream on the side. Otherwise, I settle for the kugelhopf, a turban-shaped cake distantly related to angel food cake, but more adorned.

Maybe the more adventurous can do even better at Chez Franc ois. I can't resist returning to the regional dishes that this restaurant alone attempts. BACCHUS 1827 Jefferson Place NW. 785-0734. (Bethesda branch, 7945 Norfolk Ave. 657-1722.) Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, Choice, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $3 to $4.50, entrees $6.75 to $9.75; dinner appetizers $3.25 to $5.25, entrees $9.50 to $12.25. THE GOOD NEWS ABOUT BACCHUS IS THAT now there are two, with a newer Bethesda branch that is bigger than and just as good as the downtown one. These two Lebanese restaurants show why that country's cooking has been considered the French cuisine of the Middle East.

The heart of Bacchus' menu is the first two pages -- the appetizers. There are cold salads of eggplant, tangy stuffed grape leaves, hummus and baba ghanouj, for a start. And among hot appetizers are two kinds of spicy homemade sausage, an extraordinary hummus topped with ground meat, almonds and pine nuts, wonderful phyllo-wrapped pastries, more eggplant dishes, tiny fried smelts -- and more.

If you can still go on to a main dish after sampling all the hors d'oeuvres you couldn't resist, you won't find a better lamb or chicken kebab in town. Or you can choose lamb or chicken with sweetly spiced and raisin-studded rice, to be moistened with a yogurt sauce. Yogurt is also a key ingredient in casseroles of meats with crisped pita bread and plenty of garlic. The combination of cool, tart yogurt and the crunch of bread and juicy meat is sumptuous. Bacchus is still struggling with the service in its Bethesda branch (downtown is better honed). But at both places the dishes are outstanding versions of Lebanon's classics. BANGKOK GOURMET 523 S. 23rd St., Arlington. 521-1305. Open: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 3 to 11 p.m. MC, V. No pipes or cigars allowed. Prices: appetizers $3.25 to $5.95, entrees $8.25 to $12.95. WE'VE LONG HAD NOUVELLE FRENCH CUI-sine and more recently new American cuisine. Now we have nouvelle Thai cuisine, and it is a splendid variation on the theme.

Bangkok Gourmet has always been a rather good Thai restaurant, a pleasant dining room but not so special that you would seek it for an occasion. Now it is perhaps the most unusual oriental restaurant in the area.

On the main part of the menu, you will find the familiar crab-stuffed chicken wings, satays, fiery meat salads, chicken soup with coconut milk, curries and sweet-sour dishes that are on every Thai menu. But the menu also lists loin of lamb with garlic sauce, quail stuffed with crab meat and a whole page of nouvelle Thai cuisine that bridges Thai and French cooking.

At Bangkok Gourmet, the won ton soup might be afloat with lobster dumplings. Green curry might top the cornish hen. And the sushi might have a raspberry dressing. Some of this nouvelle cuisine is more ordinary than it sounds. Grilled prawns and swordfish was a pretty arrangement of good-quality seafood, though ultimately not as memorable as some of the more traditional Thai seafood dishes. But some complexities, such as a seafood sausage grilled and fanned out on oriental noodles, are such a mosaic of flavors that the delicate and earthy interplays of sweet and sour, hot and mellow keep you nibbling.

The inventive menu is accompanied by a surprisingly varied wine list with some stellar bottles and plenty of good values. And dinner ends with gorgeous desserts: combinations of peaches and berries or apples and pears, raspberries and hazelnuts, chocolate and bananas, in custards with garlands of berries or puff pastries adrift in cream. The pastry chef has a subtle hand and a good supply of seasonal fruits. And the service is dignified, with a friendly touch. LA BRASSERIE 239 Massachusetts Ave. NE. 546-9154. Open: Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m; Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $6 to $9.50, entrees $6.50 to $9.25; dinner appetizers $6 to $10.50, entrees $10 to $20. YEARS AGO, WHEN LA BRASSERIE FIRST opened, I wandered in one morning -- anonymously -- to buy some pastries from the display case. But chef Gaby Aubouin refused to sell them because they were a day old. In the years since, I have seen such impeccable standards demonstrated innumerable times. And the restaurant has gotten better each year.

This year it is redecorated, more a serious restaurant than the cafe' it used to be. And while the old favorites such as bourride, home-smoked salmon and cre`me bru~le'e remain on the menu, each season sees new dishes added to my list of favorites. And by now the service has developed a comfortable expertise that matches the cooking.

Aubouin spans old-fashioned hearty and delicate new cuisines with ease. At lunch one day, the foie gras terrine was beautiful and no less artful on the palate. A salmon with a faint seasoning of ginger was an extraordinary juxtaposition of crustiness and juiciness. At the same table we also reveled in a full-flavored homey soup of vegetables, bacon and beaujolais, and wonderful rabbit with mustard sauce from the same Burgundian repertoire.

This is a restaurant where no matter what went before, I will order dessert, struggling to choose among the raspberries with hot cre`me bru~le'e or caramel sauce, the pastries and even the occasional crepes. In its 7 1/2 years, La Brasserie has gradually moved upscale, until now it is one of the most gracious, reliable and inventive of Washington's small French restaurants. CASPIAN TEA ROOM 4801 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 244-6363. Open: Monday through Saturday for coffee and croissants 8:30 to 11:30 a.m., for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner 6 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations required for lunch and dinner. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.75 to $4.25, entrees $7.95 to $13.25; dinner appetizers $3.50 to $4.25, entrees $9.50 to $15.25. IT LOOKS LIKE A VIENNESE KONDITOREI, with its antique furnishings, baroque mirrors and pink-clothed tables. And it's bound to be the prettiest restaurant ever to occupy a shopping mall. What's more, the Caspian Tea Room has some of the most unusual food in town (as well as some very good usual food).

Half the menu is Persian, with such exotic dishes as fessenjan -- boneless chicken pieces coated with a thick, dark sweet-tart walnut and pomegranate sauce. Much of the Persian food is familiar -- kebabs and dolmas, for instance -- but the seasoning is different from its Greek or Turkish cousins. Caspian's dolmas are lightly sweetened and strongly lemony, its kebabs thoroughly marinated and quite tangy. And the rice that comes alongside is, if you wish, tossed with raw egg yolk and sprinkled with tart powdered sumac. Anything Caspian does with yogurt, which is likely to be homemade yogurt, is worth trying, particularly the saute'ed eggplant.

Caspian also offers European dishes, often a nice chicken and pasta combination that is bright with vegetables and rich with a judicious wash of cream sauce. Finally, the pastries here are exceptional, both the professional-looking, buttery, creamy French tarts and small cakes, and the rose-scented, delicate baklava. C.F. FOLKS 1225 19th St. NW. 293-0162. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Saturday and Sunday. Cash only. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: sandwiches, soups, salads and daily specials $3.45 to $8. CHANGES ARE IN THE WIND FOR THIS little restaurant/carryout. Real estate costs are threatening its lunchtime format and its low prices. For years it has thrived, packing people into the small space between the all-too-brief hours of 11:45 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays. And it has managed to retain the fresh, bright liveliness of the cooking, the mainstays of which are the scheduled specials that change by the day (New Orleans Monday, Mexican Tuesday, Indian and Italian Wednesday, seafood Thursday and Friday) and by the season. The menu also lists salads and sandwiches, but they are not the bargains or the standouts that the daily specials are. Soups are chunky with good, fresh ingredients. And Mexican dishes have sauces with distinctive personalities, fillings of quality and side dishes such as powerfully delicious, onion-spiked refried beans.

Whether dazzling or merely satisfying (depending on the day and the dish), the small-scale, home-style cooking at C.F. Folks is very good, far more ambitious than you would expect from a tiny storefront luncheonette. The frills are all on the plate, though. You not only have to fight the crowd, but you also have to serve yourself, and the table tops and counter are unadorned except for flimsy paper napkins. Yet, if you have to scarf down your wonderful whiskey-drenched bread pudding and the very good coffee because of the glares from the waiting throng, you can at least enjoy the fact that it is such good bread pudding, and that such high-quality coffee is still 50 cents. LE CHARDON D'OR 116 S. Alfred St., Alexandria. 838-8000. Open: for breakfast Monday through Friday 7 to 9:30 a.m., Saturday and Sunday 8 to 10:30 a.m.; for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 6 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10 p.m.; Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; pre-theater dinner nightly, 6 to 7 p.m. AE, Choice, D, MC, V. Reservations required. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: breakfast $2.50 to $8.50; lunch appetizers $5.50 to 7.50, entrees $13 to $16, fixed price $15, $19 and $24; dinner appetizers $6.75 to $11.25, entrees $16 to $26, fixed price $45, $55 and $65; brunch $5.50 to $9.50, fixed price $24; fixed-price pre-theater dinner $30. THE SILVERWARE ALONE PUTS LE CHAR- don d'Or among my favorite restaurants, and in Northern Virginia there is no other restaurant quite so urbane. This is a hotel dining room that feels like a private dining room, so a meal here is quiet and personal.

Besides, the food is very, very good. Not always, mind you. (The calf's liver was dull stuff at my last visit, and the chocolate coconut mousse had a rubbery texture not saved by the meltingly light little macaroons that surrounded it.) But there is so much on the menu that tempts -- pheasant with corn flan, lamb with wild mushrooms, foie gras with chicken mousse and trevisse lettuce. Here is a kitchen of considerable accomplishment.

I do think it is a little silly to offer a fixed-price lunch in which the "main course" is pa~te' or a tossed salad, even if it is a modest $15 for three courses. But all is forgiven when I find three dishes such as the ones I encountered last time: sweetbreads on melted spinach with mustard sauce as an appetizer, diced artichoke with black truffles as the vegetable accompanying a breast of duck and a bavarian of fresh mandarin oranges that was so moist and tart and perfumed as to force me to appreciate anew that much- maligned citrus fruit. CHINA CORAL 6900 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase. 656-1203. Open: Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. AE, Choice, MC, V. Reservations suggested for six or more on weekends. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $1.95 to $3.95, entrees $4.95 to $19; dinner appetizers $2.45 to $6.95, entrees $7.95 to $15.95; dim sum $1.70 each. IT IS THE COMBINATION OF QUALITIES rather than one outstanding characteristic that makes China Coral such a favorite. It is a large restaurant, with elegance in the flower-patterned tables and recessed lighting, yet there is no formality requiring anyone to dress up if it's just a casual evening out. Seafood is the specialty, and the menu is broad, with live trout (wonderful simmered and ginger-soy dressed) and lobster, plus all kinds of creatures from eel to squid to conch. There is dim sum at lunch, and seasonal specialties -- soft-shell crabs, for instance -- that vary throughout the year. Finally, this is a family-run restaurant and practically a community center, so except for a harassed bustle on crowded evenings, it is a warmhearted place.

Perfection it is not. I have had doughy dumplings and greasy deep-fried seafood. But there are always highlights: Macao scallops with a sweet-fiery curry sauce; crisp stuffed duckling layered with a mousse-like shrimp stuffing usually found on shrimp toast; saute'ed flounder served on its crisp deep-fried frame; and those live seafood prepared to order, their freshness enhanced by careful cooking. Skip the everyday stuff -- this is not the place to order mu shi pork. But you could try a different whole fish each month and last through the year without repeating. CITY CAFE 2213 M St. NW. 797-4860. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to midnight. No credit cards accepted. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $3.50 to $6.50, entrees $6.50 to $12.50. HERE IS THE SOUL OF URBANITY. SMART, worldly, tasteful and flexible, City Cafe suits whatever the time, the weather, the appetite. It is small and close -- a cafe', not a formal dining room -- though its mirrored walls and two-level dining room add vistas to the close quarters, and the triangular tables maximize floor space if not eating space. The menu, printed on pink paper fliers so it can be changed frequently, reinforces the casualness. There is no presumption, no self-importance. The descriptions, instead of being the fashionable long, clinical descriptions of ingredients, are understatements that allow for happy surprises. Thus the simplest sounding dishes surprise you with their complexity and colorfulness.

If for nothing else, I would frequent City Cafe for the perfectly roasted peppers and bright, beautiful chalk-white goat cheese, linked by just the right balance of garlic and olive oil. A few simple ingredients support one another to make a great dish. This is one of the regular offerings under "small fare and salad," which is the category encompassing my favorite dishes at City Cafe. Here are smoky grilled shiitakes with red onions; aromatic, smoked, peppered bluefish with the loveliest color contrasts in green wasabi cream and pink pickled ginger; curried scallops on a bed of watercress -- the perfect crunchy, peppery contrast to the vinaigrette dressing. There are heartier salads, too, with grilled steak and black beans or lamb and arugula.

Then the menu goes on to pastas and pizzas, grills and stir-fries. I head for the simplest -- not because the more complicated dishes are disappointing, but because the simpler dishes are revelations. A superb hamburger is enhanced by homemade mayonnaise, and really good chicken is cooked on a rotisserie to a bursting juiciness. Pizzas are subtle, pastas are more boldly dressed. And vegetables here are pure artistry, their colors and flavors intense.

City Cafe, like its parent restaurant, Nora, takes no credit cards. On a more positive note, it concentrates on well-bred ingredients -- free-range chickens, antibiotic-free meats and eggs, organically grown vegetables, fruits and herbs. It is an utterly urbane restaurant that has solid connections with the best the country has to offer. LA COLLINE 400 N. Capitol St. NW. 737-0400. Open: for breakfast Monday through Friday 7 to 10 a.m.; for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m.; nightly pre-theater dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations required. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.50 to $4.25, entrees $7.95 to $11.95; dinner appetizers $3.75 to $6.75, entrees $9 to $14.75. NEWCOMERS TO WASHINGTON WILL FIND it a surprise, such moderately priced haute cuisine in a Capitol Hill office building. Old-timers, though, remember the talent and professionalism of Le Bagatelle, the K Street predecessor of La Colline, and marvel only at the prices. This is a restaurant where the food is often exquisite and, at its worst, just pretty good. For "everyday" prices (about half the price of most expense-account restaurants), you can find such elegant dishes as duck with fresh black currants, salmon with beurre blanc and baby turnips, and sweetbreads, perhaps with zucchini. There may be an off day here and there, but generally the kitchen shines, and always the plates are adorned with assortments of fresh vegetables that are perfectly cooked and seasoned, not mere afterthoughts or decorations.

Even better values than the main dishes are the appetizers. The smoked salmon is among the best quality in town but at a much lower price than most. Fresh foie gras is similarly fine and a similar bargain, as are belon oysters.

Desserts are beautiful, but not quite as grand as they look. Cheesecake is the best bet. Wines are also a good bet, even the house wines, among them a California chardonnay for about $15.

La Colline has done a decent job of turning a high-ceilinged box of an office-building dining room into cozy nooks of booths on two levels. Lately, though, it hasn't done as good a job with service. We were virtually neglected on my last visit, poured our own wine and waited for someone to remember we were there, though the waiters were quite polished in those attentions they did proffer.

La Colline is a distinguished restaurant overall, a rare quality in modestly priced French restaurants. DAR ES SALAM 3056 M St. NW. 342-1925. Open: for dinner Sunday and Monday 5 to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. Choice, MC, V. Reservations required. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $3.50 to $7.95, entrees $10.95 to $14.95; fixed price $27.50 and $39.50; early-bird dinner from 5 to 7 p.m. $12.95. NO CUISINE TANTALIZES MORE WITH THE interplay of sweet and salty, crisp and smooth, hot and mild than Moroccan. For that reason alone Dar Es Salam would be worth trying. Its cooking is authentic, and while some of the main dishes slip from time to time (maybe a bland couscous one day or roast lamb that is too strong and too fatty another day), it would be hard to escape a dinner without having a stunningly good dish.

The assortment of salads, each in its own little bowl and served with homemade bread for dipping, is a palette of North African spices and herbs in carrots or cucumbers or lentils, for example. The tiny phyllo-wrapped meat pastries and appetizer kebabs fill the mouth with wonderful flavors. And the bastilla -- pigeon pie with nuts, raisins and egg in a phyllo crust dusted with confectioner's sugar -- is memorable.

As for main dishes, there are some revelations for the adventurous, perhaps brains or a lemony cumin-scented stew of calf's tongue. For the more timid, there are chicken variations, notably stewed chicken with preserved lemons and olives. Or try the day's fish -- this fall, apparently, fish is going to be featured more widely on the menu.

In addition to serving some fascinating and delicious food, Dar Es Salam leads you to another time and place with its filigreed plaster ceiling and mosaic walls, its ritual of washing your hands with rose water, its low sofas and tables and its platters of food for the table to share, eating by hand or scooping it with bread. The waiters and waitresses are gracious and attentive. And in addition to the more usual alcoholic accompaniments, Dar Es Salam serves some exotic non-alcoholic drinks. Finally, if you haven't had enough of the environment by the end of dinner, there is a nightclub downstairs. DUKE ZEIBERT'S 1050 Connecticut Ave. NW. 466-3730. Open: Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. Closed on Sundays during the summer. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non- smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $1.95 to $4.75, entrees $9.95 to $15.50; dinner appetizers $4.95 to $9.50, entrees $13.95 to $20.95. MEL AND DUKE MAY HAVE DIVIDED INTO camps separated by verbal barbed wire, but somehow, whenever one improves, the other follows. Or maybe the same person is making the chopped liver and matzo balls for both restaurants. Anyway, Duke's is at its prime nowadays, the chopped liver sweet from well-browned onions and fresh chicken livers, the matzo balls flavorful and light but not so fluffy that they don't remind you they are dumplings. The matzo balls come in chicken soup that is adequate but not a prize winner, or with chicken in a pot, which is a gargantuan portion but worthwhile mostly for that matzo ball.

There is lots more at Duke's, but the steaks and grilled fish and crab cakes aren't what I go there for (though the crab cakes are generous with their high-quality lump crab meat). Other than the Jewish-nostalgia dishes, my interests at Duke's are the table frills (ultra-sour pickles and seeded onion rolls), the lunchtime power scenery (at least one television personality, tables of jocks and moguls, a few political power brokers and the journalists who cover them) and Duke himself, who is one of Washington's monuments. ENRIQUETA'S OF ADAMS-MORGAN 1832 Columbia Rd. NW. 328-0937. Open: for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations required for parties of six or more. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $2.75 to $7.75, entrees $8.50 to $11. IF YOU LIKE ADAMS-MORGAN, YOU'LL LOVE Enriqueta's. It is a Mexican restaurant of great character and embodies all the best of this lively urban neighborhood. While its menu has the usual range of tacos, enchiladas, burritos and tamales, what I go to Enriqueta's for are the fish dishes, preferably those with a simple thin, clear and tangy garlic-white wine sauce, and the stuffed peppers -- poblanos with cheese or ancho chilies with shredded meat, fruit and nuts. Then again, I like to take someone along who will share the chicken or enchilada with mole -- that dark, fiery and faintly sweet sauce, dense with spices and smoothed by a touch of chocolate. Another favorite is the filet mignon, seared and well seasoned, so I might urge my companion to try the poblano platter, which combines filet mignon with a stuffed pepper and an enchilada with mole.

Even more important are the beginnings and endings. Enriqueta's margaritas are irreproachable, its ceviche is remarkable, and its baked mussels with a dark chili paste are irresistible. For dessert it would be a shame to miss the rich, creamy, orange- and lime-flecked cremitas.

But the food isn't all that is good about Enriqueta's. The service is endearing, and the dining room looks like a party favor, with lacy pastel paper cutouts hanging everywhere. Finally, as one expects in Adams-Morgan, the prices are aimed at everyman's pocketbook. Enriqueta's is a dream of an ethnic restaurant. GALILEO 2014 P St. NW. 293-7191. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations required. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $4 to $4.95, entrees $8.95 to $12.95; dinner appetizers $5 to $5.95, entrees $10.95 to $18.95. WHEN A RESTAURANT OPENS A NEW branch, we worry that the original will suffer for it, but that doesn't seem to have happened at Galileo since it spawned Primi Piatti. Rather, a second branch may have removed some of the pressure that made this small restaurant scramble to turn over its tables. And the fact that Primi Piatti is such a clatter of a dining room makes Galileo seem quiet in comparison.

Still, I don't like the noisy reverberations off the hard edges and low ceiling in this tightly packed dining room. And it is frustrating that service can lag unconscionably.

What I love about Galileo, clearly, is the food. Not all the food, but much of it. It is hard to offer a specific guide because its menu changes twice a day. But one nibble at the homemade bread sticks and grainy country breads flavored with herbs or olives will reveal the clue to ordering here: Try something unusual, for this kitchen uses extraordinary ingredients extraordinarily well. At one meal, for instance, pasta with tomatoes and crab was everyday stuff: good crab, chunky tomatoes, snippets of fresh basil adding up to a mildly pleasant combination but no thrill. Pappardelle -- wide homemade noodles -- with rabbit sauce, however, was a dish to remember, the slightly creamy tomato sauce earthy and gamy but so delicate that you kept being drawn to one more bite to check out the nuances. And among the antipasti, roasted peppers stuffed with tuna, raisins and pine nuts was the best of Italy with its sweet smoky peppers, its tuna stuffing so subtle you might not have guessed it was fish, and the sparkle of shredded arugula and basil leaves lightly covered with dark green olive oil poured as if it were as valuable as perfume -- which it is.

For starters, I go for the surprises on the menu -- the risottos, the rarely encountered pasta sauces, the most unexpected marinated vegetables. As for main dishes, the same rule holds, with the additional warning that the meat dishes tend to outshine the fish dishes. Try the game, the organ meats, the old-fashioned country dishes. As for fish, it is generally served plainly grilled and thus totally dependent on its freshness and careful timing. Grilled fresh sardines vividly reminded me that Washington is too far from the Mediterranean for such a dish to be at its best.

And I'm no fan of the desserts at Galileo, except for ripe berries served with cold zabaglione. No matter. By the time dessert rolls around, I've always savored enough homemade bread, pasta and large portions of great Italian cold and hot dishes that passing up dessert is a treat in itself. GERMAINE'S 2400 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 965-1185. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations required. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.75 to $6.75, entrees $6.75 to $12.95; dinner appetizers $3.25 to $7.50, entrees $8.95 to $24.95. EVERY FEW MONTHS, ANOTHER UPSCALE oriental restaurant opens, one more beautiful than the next. All too often, though, I leave feeling that I have been eating stir-fried French food. The cooking has more refinement than ethnic character.

Fortunately, Germaine's gets it right. Over the years its pan-Asian menu has gotten ever longer, and its range has broadened, incorporating some western style without losing its oriental character. And the service is a model I wish more restaurants would copy: Waiters are attentive to the diners without trying to draw attention to themselves; service is graceful, dignified and thoughtful. It is all so smooth.

Germaine's is a soothing place, with fiber-covered walls, beautiful photographs and neutral colors. There is no flossiness or grandeur, just simple, handsome decor. Its wine and beer lists are well thought out. Germaine's thoughtfulness extends to eschewing monosodium glutamate in its cooking.

All those are bonuses, though. The meat of the matter is that Germaine's serves wonderful food. The grill turns out crusty, juicy satays. It may have been the first open grill in an upscale Washington restaurant, and it is still among the best. The appetizer list has Thai meat and seafood salads that are crunchy, colorful and fiery. Among hot appetizers are variations on the Vietnamese spring roll theme and some of the best oriental dumplings in town, translucent Japanese rice-dough wrappers with tangy ground pork filling. But there is one disaster on the menu these days: Thai-style chicken wings, which would warn me away from Germaine's deep-fryer except for the famous pine-cone fish.

Among the main dishes (which go on for pages), grilled selections are good bets and range from Indian tandoori chicken to Japanese teriyaki chicken to Vietnamese lemon-grass chicken or spareribs to Korean short ribs to American steak and lamb chops. For me, though, the seafood is the most irresistible. When soft-shell crabs are in season, nobody shines brighter than Germaine's and its stir-fried soft-shells with black beans. And sometimes I can break away from the pine-cone fish long enough to try some fish steamed or wrapped in parchment, or perhaps a shrimp dish, and lately an extraordinary scallop dish -- perfectly cooked scallops tinted by their chili glaze and surrounded by a halo of crisp strands of fried seaweed.

Germaine's hot dishes never eclipse the flavors. Its ingredients are top quality, its cooking is careful. Most important, though, with all its fresh ideas and culinary inventions, it never loses its distinctive taste. HONG KONG PALACE 807 Seventh St. NW. 842-1628. Open: daily 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations required. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch entrees $4.75 to $12, dim sum $1.80 to $2.80; dinner appetizers $2.25 to $4.50, entrees $4.75 to $25. THE WINDOW SAYS ALL I NEED TO KNOW about Hong Kong Palace. In it are hung the soy-roasted ducks, chickens, pork and spareribs that set this restaurant apart from the crowd. Its highlights are the barbecued meats, not just the ones on the menu but specials such as suckling pig with skin as crisp as potato chips, and boiled chicken to dip into soy and ginger.

There is more, including a long list of dim sum at lunch. And there is a full-blown Cantonese menu that offers what turns out to be inconsistent but often sensational cooking.

The erratic service, running warm and frigid, is part of the style of this very busy restaurant that concentrates on food rather than amenities. But the prices are low enough that you don't have to worry about paying for absent amenities.

Be prepared to wait -- for your food as well as your table -- and prepare to eat heavily, for this is rich, meaty stuff in which fat and grease are part of the succulence. So if the meats hanging in the window of Hong Kong Palace look plentiful and plump and freshly cooked (they lose their character if they have been refrigerated rather than left to cool to room temperature), throw all dietary caution to the winds, if just for one meal, to sample the glory of Chinese roasting. THE INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON Middle and Main streets, Washington, Va. (703) 675-3800. Open: for dinner Wednesday through Friday 6 to 9:30 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 4 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday. MC, V. Reservations required. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: fixed-price dinner, $48 Wednesday through Friday and Sunday, $68 Saturday. IT IS SUCH A RELIEF TO RETURN TO THE Inn at Little Washington and find that it hasn't changed, or if it has, that it has gotten better. The exquisite local foodstuffs become more varied each year, the service becomes more expert, the wine list grows deeper, and the cooking -- always inventive and distinctive American food at its best -- becomes ever more sure of itself. The inn's 10th anniversary is coming up in January, but I'd venture to say it has the depth and maturity of a country inn that has been around for half a century.

However, some of this year's changes, mainly in the menu itself, don't please me. The menu is fixed-price now and considerably more expensive on Saturday than it is during the week. I can't applaud either the rigidity or the two-tiered price structure of the new arrangement. On the other hand, the menu is longer and the choices are more compelling than ever. Nowadays there might be 15 appetizers and a dozen main dishes from which to choose.

Here is a restaurant where the food on the plate looks and tastes even better than it sounds on the menu. Chilled shrimp steamed in beer and juniper berries turns out to be magnificent giant shrimp that vie with lobster in terms of flavor. And lobster "with orzo and a confetti of vegetables in an aromatic broth" is so succulent and so suited by its hail of minced vegetables and rice-shaped pasta that even though I think plain steamed lobster is the pinnacle of eating, I have to admit that this is no less delicious. I have loved the boudin blanc and the silver queen corn soup, even over the home-smoked rainbow trout and timbale of crab and spinach mousse, but I am not sorry to give them up for the tiny juicy tuna and salmon cakes on sorrel cream. Last year the figs with country ham and lime cream were slightly more beautifully arranged and the ham more succulent, but a first-timer would still think it was a spectacular presentation. So my only real complaint among the appetizers has been the turnip, buckwheat and potato crepes -- dry and tough, though with flawless osetra caviar.

And that is just the appetizers. Between courses there is a glory of a green salad or the only sorbet I have found in recent months that has really cleansed my palate: tart grapefruit with fresh tarragon.

As for main courses, the best are the best anywhere. There are tiny soft-shell crabs with tart lemon-butter sauce and plenty of garlic and lemon peel. Or pink-centered meats such as lamb or duck, fanned out on vinegared greens with fresh raspberry garnish for the duck and plump spring vegetables for the lamb, with a side dish of good old-fashioned crusty cream-baked sliced potatoes. There are flaws, though, including a scaloppine of swordfish and tuna that was short of succulent, though its charred onions and tomato mint salsa was enlivening. But overall it is hard to find a dish that is less than successful. More likely, by the main course you'll find that the endearing homemade breads -- tiny corn muffins with fresh sage, salt-crusted rye and crusty white -- will have muted your appetite.

Dessert can be an array of them all with a Jackson Pollock splashing of sauces to link them, or the one of your choice. I can never resist the caramel sundae and would never pass a warm-weather evening at the inn without taking dessert in the garden.

The decorations are in the style of an English country inn, with something to delight the eye in every corner. It is hard to resist staying the night in one of the 10 guest rooms. And then there would be breakfast . . . JAMAICA JOE 8573 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 585-2545. Open: Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. No credit cards. No reservations. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $1, entrees $4 to $5.50. IT IS WITH TREPIDATION THAT I MENTION that Jamaica Joe is moving, probably in the next few months. I fear that some subtle formula will be disrupted, for as it is, this place feels totally Jamaican, and it is hard to identify exactly why. Surely, the dark-crusted and fiery jerk chicken and jerk pork are part of the crucial mix (even down to the pork's being largely fat and the chicken sometimes ropy from reheating). Naturally, daily specials (my favorite is Tuesday's intense brown chicken fricassee) and the curries, the roti, the rice and peas, the plantain and the bright, meaty and peppery meat patties taste authentic. And surely the warm, friendly greeting with a lilting Jamaican accent, the hospitable service and comfortable affability remind us of Jamaica. But it is also the ceiling fans, the posters, the yellowing signs penned with fun and whimsy, the coolers of brightly colored fruit drinks that transport us to the islands.

Maybe the move will make Jamaica Joe even better. Supposedly it is going to start serving homemade drinks such as ginger beer and pineapple punch. Maybe other improvements will follow. I personally think it is right just the way it is (at least on the days when the jerk chicken is freshly grilled). On reflection, though, I think it is the people who run it that make Jamaica Joe what it is, and I would follow them anywhere. JEAN-LOUIS 2650 Virginia Ave. NW. 298-4488. Open: for dinner Monday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m., pre-theater dinner 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations required. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: three-course fixed-price $65, four courses $80, pre-theater $35. DID I EVER DOUBT JEAN-LOUIS? IF SO, I take it back. Jean-Louis Palladin deserves every inch of media glory he has been showered with. The kitchen is a marvel, and the dining room staff does it proud.

There was a time when the cooking was erratic, depending on Jean-Louis' presence, his mood, his willingness to test unfinished ideas on the public. These days all seems under control. Even with Jean-Louis' traveling, the kitchen seems to maintain consistency, and whatever invention he adds to the menu is likely to be a stunner rather than a shocker.

There are two fixed-price menus at dinner -- plus a "bargain"-price pre-theater dinner. And the less expensive, shorter dinner is no less exciting than the grander ones.

Even given Washington's infamous climate, I look forward to summer for Jean-Louis' fresh corn soup with belon oysters. And summer is when his impeccable saute'ed foie gras is accompanied by fresh peaches. If it is not soft-shell crab time, I will settle for crayfish in a pool of truffle butter. Among meats, I yearn for Jean-Louis' amazingly delicate saddle of rabbit or the squab with dates, honey and cumin, a sweet-spicy glaze that sometimes enhances duck instead.

Jean-Louis makes it looks easy. He manages to find the very best of ingredients: If fresh hearts of palm are to be found, he will get them, and if extraordinary lambs or rabbits are being raised for tables, they will be at Jean-Louis' tables. And he has the imagination (and the whimsy) to work with them until they take new and wonderful forms. He makes fritters of oysters with truffle butter, sandwiches of tuna with a layer of caviar as thick as peanut butter and jelly filling. He has the gutsiness and energy to experiment with smelt roe and abalone and ginger and bone marrow. And by now he understands American taste enough to not only suit it, but to also delight it.

There is talk of redecorating the dining room, which is due this fine, inventive French cooking. The wine list has already been revised and now shows depth and respect for the customer's taste -- and his bank balance. The restaurant has gone through ups and downs, revisions and rumors, and is skimming along, sky-high among the fine French restaurants of the world. Jean-Louis may have peers in kitchens here and in France, but he has no superiors. KEYHOLE INN 1126 N. Hudson St., Arlington. 522-5570. Open: daily 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. Cash only. No reservations. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: $1.25 to $12.95. CHILI AND BEER. THAT'S WHAT YOU'D want to know about the Keyhole. It has the hottest, simplest, most straightforward chili in town, and I love it. No tomato, no sugar, just powerfully seasoned (and pretty greasy) stewed ground meat, the kind that could probably bore a hole right through your stomach if you ate it every day for a week. The timid cut it with spaghetti or beans, the brave add chopped raw onion, and the suicidal order it "extra wet" (with extra grease).

The Keyhole is a good, old-fashioned roadhouse, with a great nostalgia collection on the jukebox, a couple of pinball machines for exercise between beers and a bar staff that hasn't lost the fine old conversational touch of the classic bartender. In addition to chili, the Keyhole serves a decent bargain-price crab cake -- as well as steamed crabs on some evenings. It is one of the last of Virginia's plain old down-to-earth hangouts and deserves to be saved from extinction every bit as much as some art deco movie theater. LAURIOL PLAZA 1801 18th St. NW. 387-0035. Open: daily noon to midnight. All major credit cards. Reservations not required. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.95 to $4.95, entrees $4.95 to $11; dinner appetizers $5.95 to $12.95, entrees $5.95 to $12.95; brunch $4.95 to $6.95. SOMETIMES I THINK LAURIOL PLAZA IS

too good to be true. It strikes the right note on whatever occasion I try it, whether it's a Saturday afternoon drink and snack after museum hopping, an outdoor lunch on a balmy afternoon or a dinner on the town. Service is gracious and personable as well as efficient, the indoor and outdoor dining areas are breezily pretty, and the food is generally even more delicious than I remember. Is that because it is always improving, or because I keep wondering how such a modestly priced restaurant can do it?

I don't know of a fresher, more vibrant ceviche in town, and if I could have only one taco in my life, it would be Lauriol Plaza's, with its zingy cumin-and-chili-dosed shredded meat and just a little white cheese grated on top. I'd never want to miss the shrimp with garlic as an appetizer, though. The shrimp taste fresh in their bite and their flavor, and they are drenched in enough butter and minced garlic to warrant several of the crusty white rolls for dipping. The only dish I avoid is the quiche, but anyone who orders quiche in a Mexican-Spanish restaurant deserves it.

Available as appetizers or main dishes, the tamales are good solid classics, and the quesadillas are delicate, fresh and attractively served. That doesn't even begin to delve into the main courses, both Mexican and Spanish. While I wouldn't slight the enchiladas and burritos, or even the zarzuela -- the sumptuous seafood stew with its winy tang -- the star of the main courses as far as I am concerned is the duck. It can be ordered with bitter orange sauce, but I love it with olives, cooked so long that it nearly falls apart at the touch of a fork, greaseless and crisp-skinned, with a dark, deep gravy sharp with olives. Yes, I would prefer better, meatier olives, but they don't stop this from being a satisfying duck dish.

Then there are the drinks that draw the afternoon loungers: really good margaritas by the bargain-price pitcher (even better if you ask for gold tequila) and pisco sours that are their match. LEDO 2420 University Blvd., Adelphi. 422-8622. Open: daily 9 a.m. to midnight. MC, V. Reservations not required. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $1.50 to $5.25; lunch entrees $2.75 to $6.25, dinner entrees $4.75 to $12.95. AFTER DECADES OF GOING TO LEDO I finally ventured beyond the pizza, fried ravioli and eggplant parmesan, since the waitress recommended the fried chicken. Actually, the chicken was crisp and juicy, very good stuff. And there are probably other good things on the vast Italian and American menu. But I can't see any reason to tear myself away from the pizza (even though in recent years Ledo has too often rushed its cooking so the crust is soggy and pale rather than flaky and brown). This is square pizza, its dough a cross between pie crust and bread, and the thick tomato sauce is rather sweet but also nicely spicy. The toppings are plentiful, the favorite being bacon. A debate rages, however, between those who order it with the bacon precooked and those who want it added raw, to capture every bit of grease and smokiness as it cooks into the sauce.

It's a tradition to start with fried ravioli, which are a kind of glorified convenience food in that they taste like canned ravioli breaded and deep-fried. Mainly they are a vehicle for eating that thick and aromatic tomato sauce by the bowlful. And then you go on to pizza.

Ledo is always busy, inevitably crowded and noisy, more a dining hall than a dining room. Considering the circumstances, the service is terrific. After doing duty at Ledo, those waitresses could meet any task with aplomb. At breakneck speed they serve, clear, bring you another beer just as you're emptying your last bottle and wrap your leftover pizza even before you've made a move to go. Ledo is an institution. Every institution should feed us so well. LE LION D'OR 1150 Connecticut Ave. NW. 296-7972. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations required. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $4 to $10, entrees $12 to $16; dinner appetizers $8.50 to $36, entrees $16 to $52. THERE IS ALWAYS PLENTY OF NEWS,

flash and dash among Washington's new restaurants. And I wouldn't want it otherwise. But it is always a pleasure to renew my acquaintance with the steady dignity of Le Lion d'Or. It is a restaurant in the grand old style, conservative stripes on the walls and professionals in the dining room and the kitchen. It is a restaurant that retains that old-fashioned notion of a full, wide-ranging French menu rather than the new-style minimalist menu of fixed-price meals with three or four choices for each course.

On this broad menu there are winners and losers, and your best bet is to concentrate on the daily specials (which takes concentration, since the list the waiter recites is long). I will always return for chef Jean-Pierre Goyenvalle's classics: hot rabbit pa~te', noodles with fresh wild mushrooms, grilled pigeon, chocolate souffle'. And then I fill in with his newer dishes, sometimes adding one -- steamed fish with sherry vinegar and sea beans, for instance -- to my list of musts.

It is not just the food that gives such satisfaction at Le Lion d'Or. The restaurant is solid and comfortable. Service is elegant, and plates are attractive without being fussy. The cost is expensive but not exorbitant. Le Lion d'Or has become a Washington tradition, reminding us that, whatever outsiders and newcomers may believe, this didn't just become "a restaurant city." MEL KRUPIN'S 1120 Connecticut Ave. NW. 331-7000. Open: Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday noon to 3 p.m., 5 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.50 to $8.95, entrees $7.95 to $16.95; dinner appetizers $4.75 to $8.95, entrees $16.95 to $24.50. MEL'S IS A CLASSIC, A RELIC OF OLD WASH-ington, where size was an asset -- big people ate big hunks of food in big restaurants at big tables. Even now, the appetizer portions are like main dishes, and the main-dish portions are like buffets. There are changes, however. A series of new chefs has been modernizing the kitchen so that along with the bowl of pickles, you are likely to find baby carrots and golden beets accompanying dinner. Don't worry, they haven't just yuppie-ized this old politico-jock hangout. In fact, they may have improved the basics.

While the prime rib is still too steamed and juiceless for my taste, I love the chopped liver, which is faintly sweet from really fresh chicken livers and really fried onions. The chicken soup itself could use a lesson from Mel's grandmother, but the matzo ball is a wonder: Big and light and oozing chicken-fat flavor, it could compete with anybody's grandmother's. These two dishes are better than ever. Otherwise, I wouldn't venture too far into Mel's long menu. The swordfish is certainly okay -- thick and fresh and not too fussed with. But I go to Mel's for what you can hardly find anyplace else anymore: pickles, onion rolls, chopped liver, matzo-ball soup, chicken or beef in the pot. Don't mess with success. MIKADO 4707 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 244-1740. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner Tuesday through Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m. Closed Monday. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested on weekends. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $3 to $5.50; lunch entrees $5.50 to $7.95, dinner entrees $5.95 to $27; seven-course dinner from $45 Tuesday through Thursday for those who call ahead. THIS OLD RELIABLE JAPANESE RESTAU- rant has kept up with the times, adding a sushi bar when it became fashionable, offering an all-eel luncheon (tempura, grilled eel, eel salad, eel rolls and eel chawan mashi -- steamed custard) when that sea creature became more acceptable. Waitresses wear kimonos, sushi chefs are only mildly competent in English, and a full range of Japanese entrees is offered, unlike at many of the newer Japanese restaurants.

What's more, the raw fish can be spectacularly good, perhaps because Mikado has a retail fish counter in its adjacent grocery. I have found the yellowtail unequaled elsewhere in Washington, sea urchin as sweetly fresh as any I've had in this country and a vinegared bonito with scallions that could almost edge out yellowtail as my favorite. While I should add that the toro -- belly tuna -- at the same meal was chewy from a covering membrane, I still find the fish counter impressive. Service is quiet and gracious, and the cooked foods are, like the sushi, highly competent. Mikado has waited out the competition of the sushi craze, and just goes on as it always has. MIXTEC 1792 Columbia Rd. NW. 332-1011. Open: Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. No credit cards. Reservations not required. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $2.25 to $3.95, entrees $6.50 to $8.50. MIXTEC STARTED AS A GROCERY AND EX- panded its seating as it reduced its grocery shelves, although it still has fewer than a dozen tables. The ceiling is hung with pinåatas, the walls are emblazoned with painted tinwork, the tables are covered with oilcloth, and the cooking is typical of Mexican storefront eateries. For about $5 you can get a couple of different tacos to add up to a meal: smoky, crunchy grilled beef or pork bits, tangy paprika-spiked chorizo with rice and beans or vegetarian. For $15 you can eat your way through the menu and drink your way through the margaritas and Tecate, as well as leave a tip. The tacos are certainly not stateside with their soft, blistery texture and their simplicity -- just meat and a jar of hot sauce to spike them. There are also enchiladas, burritos and beef dishes -- diced meat saute'ed with red or green sauces of poblano peppers or tomatillos, which are so good you use up all your tortillas swiping them up. The beef is rough peasant cooking, all the more delicious for it. And that's about it for the menu.

Low prices, close friendly quarters, simple and spicy cooking from a small menu. Mixtec is indeed authentic. MORTON'S 3251 Prospect St. NW. 342-6258. Open: for dinner Monday through Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted for 5:30 to 7 p.m. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $5.95 to $7.50, entrees $10.95 to $21.95; three-pound porterhouse steak for two $43.90; lobster $11 per pound. WASHINGTONIANS ARE KNOWN FOR BEING fickle when it comes to choosing restaurants. We abandon last year's favorites for this year's new style, and one year's hit becomes the next year's disaster. We do, however, return to our steakhouses.

And while Washington has several good steakhouses, Morton's stays a notch ahead of the rest with the best porterhouse steak a Chicago beef baron can procure. It is beef with some flavor bred and aged into it, properly marbled and perfectly cooked (even when you order it black-and-blue). There are other options, of course: New York strip, filet, roast beef and non-beef choices such as a thick breaded veal chop, lamb chops, butterflied whole chicken, lobster and fish steaks. While I haven't had anything at Morton's that wasn't very good, I still stick to those things it does spectacularly well. That means starting with the smoked salmon, continuing to a caesar or tomato salad, centering on a porterhouse, preferably a double-thick one shared between two or more people and balancing that with spinach and mushrooms or hash browns. Morton's has as good a bar as you would expect at a steakhouse, and some fine merlots on its wine list. And while Morton's has incorporated some good desserts on its menu, its handsome towering souffle's taste more of powder -- cornstarch, perhaps -- than of egg and flavoring.

Morton's waiters are lively, fun, fast on their feet and just as irreverent as such a luxuriously casual place warrants. In other words, Morton's does exactly what it sets out to do and does it well. MRS. SIMPSON'S 2915 Connecticut Ave. NW. 332-8300. Open: for dinner daily 6 to 10:30 p.m.; for Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $3.95, entrees $9.95 to $14.95; brunch a` la carte appetizers $1.95, entrees $6.95; champagne brunch $14.95. MRS. SIMPSON'S NEEDN'T EVEN SERVE food to draw my interest, for the display cases of memorabilia from the late duke and duchess of Windsor form a charming museum. But by now the kitchen has developed so that Mrs. Simpson's would draw my interest even without its romantic treasures. It's been a pleasure to watch this restaurant mature into one of those all-too-few mid-price restaurants that are worth an occasion as well as an everyday visit. A sibling to 209 1/2 and Foggy Bottom Cafe, Mrs. Simpson's has their familiar American-eclectic style: a couple of seafood dishes borrowed from the French, Chinese-style duck, a variation on the Mexican tostada, plus a pu pu platter of American barbecued spareribs, vegetarian spring rolls and fried ravioli with roquefort dressing. This is cooking with fresh ideas and fresh ingredients, and most of it works. What doesn't work is the service, which veers from engaged to supercilious and is likely to be paced for the waiter's pleasure rather than yours.

In all, Mrs. Simpson's suits, especially when I want a dinner of sophistication without having to dress up or go downtown, and I have time to linger -- maybe over a champagne or an armagnac from the ornate ironwork liquor shelves. Tables are spaced so that couples are more than mere inches from the next table, and the mirrored dining room is a pretty place to while away the evening.

The menu lists light entrees as well as heftier ones, but the light ones are plentiful meals. Although I have had an excellent mustard-grilled chicken breast and the swordfish or duck with mandarin pancakes sound good, I usually hope somebody else at the table will order them and let me taste. I haven't yet been able to pass up the French farm salad -- chicory with bacon and roquefort dressing -- or the thick saute'ed liver steak, whether this season dressed with avocado or with bacon and turnips. MY AN 3101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 276-7110. Open: daily 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. No credit cards. Reservations suggested on weekends. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $2.05 to $2.75; lunch entrees $4.25 to $6.75, dinner entrees $4.25 to $8.75. PICKING ONE VIETNAMESE RESTAURANT out of the dozens is just plain unfair, I'll admit that. The best of them, after all, are neighborhood restaurants, simple and casual and very good for the money but not necessarily better than another neighborhood's. So all I can say is that My An is a fine example of the art of Vietnamese cooking. It attempts nothing fancy: Formica table tops and a handwritten list of blackboard specials are good enough.

My An is the kind of place that reminds us that eating out involves not just food but community life. In addition -- or perhaps foremost -- the food is very good. My An's spring rolls are as delicious as I have ever had -- their wrappers are light and flaky without greasiness, and the filling is a complex blend of ground meat, vegetable bits and seasoning.

The best things to order at My An are grilled dishes. They come with a mound of fine translucent noodles, branches of herbs and cucumbers to wrap with the rest in lettuce or rice paper, then dip into sweet-salty red-gold fish sauce. And while it is difficult to choose among grilled pork, beef, chicken and shrimp-with-scallops, I would always include "beef with little bacon," which is rolls of thinly sliced beef filled with bacon strips to add extra smokiness to the charcoal flavor. A more adventurous dish is the shrimp and bean stuffed savory muffin, and there is a range of soups from sweetly aromatic pho to the peppery special hue spicy soup. Prices are about as low as dinner gets around Washington, so you can risk tasting something exotic and unfamiliar and still play it safe with skewered meats and seafood from the grill.