The economy may be wobbling, but that doesn't mean the party's off. Talk to your favorite caterers, your nearest fancy-food shop owners. They'll probably tell you what they told us, that they're busier than ever -- though they're often working with smaller budgets -- and the holidays haven't even begun. That's good news -- for the economy and for our spirits.

There's even better news: Bill Homan, a partner in the catering firm Design Cuisine, says the trend is to ward good, basic, less expensive food. Or, as he puts it, "The people on the corporate and social circuit have been pheasanted to death. Good, simple food is coming along at a good time."

The simpler the meal, of course, the more important the quality of the ingredients. Here again we have reason to cheer. Our area boasts sophisticated culinary resources as never before -- from a herd of West Virginia goats producing fresh chevre to an in-town baker whose French ovens are working overtime to satisfy Washington's pent-up craving for good, crusty bread. We've worked hard to identify as many of these special resources as possible.

To put all the elements together, we consulted a number of caterers and party planners, the pros whose reputations rise or fall on their guests' satisfaction. Their advice can help you in planning your cocktail party, sit-down dinner or buffet supper. Obviously, you can put yourself completely in their hands, letting them provide the food, the equipment and the servers; or you can buy some of their products (a tray or two of hors d'oeuvres, for instance) but not their services; or you can just fly solo, inspired by their ideas and guided by their expertise. The choice -- and maybe the most important party of the holiday season -- is yours. A Rustic Start

o doubt about it, the hottest trend in food in Washington is bread. Thanks to Marvelous Market with its world-class baguettes (and the long lines created by same), home entertainers are looking harder at other bakeries. There's a lot to discover, from earthy Tuscan loaves to zesty onion rye. These special breads can cost anywhere from $1 to $5 or more per loaf, but, then, we're not talking about Wonder Bread.

Part of the appeal of these lusty loaves is their hearty mountain-man scale. Stacked on a table at a buffet-style party with oversize tortes of spreadable cheese and large pyramids of locally made goat cheeses, they make a delightful alternative to hors d'oeuvres. They also look abundant without hinting of overkill. The bread table will also welcome one or more terrines or pa~te's, perhaps a classic, fine-grained liver spread and a rough-cut pa~te' de campagne. There are also more unusual alternatives to spread on all that staff of life: The Farm at Mt. Walden, in Rappahannock County, offers mousse made of shiitake mushrooms or trout.

A meat or poultry terrine can work equally well as the starter for a sit-down dinner, of course. If your talent doesn't run to force-feeding geese or lining terrines with fat salt pork, this will be a dish you buy even if you make the main course and the dessert yourself. Don't let this make you feel like a kitchen wimp: Generations of French professional and home cooks would have been lost without their charcutier and traiteur.

The Elegant Hors d'Oeuvre

he French solve the hors d'oeuvre question simply and elegantly, especially on New Year's Eve: a simple slice of velvety goose liver on a simple slice of toast, washed down with simply the best champagne they can afford. And if you can afford such simplicity, read no further. But there's an argument to be made, particularly at a large gathering, for the color and surprise of hors d'oeuvres.

A glance at our selection here demonstrates we've come a long way from canapes with fussy piped-on toppings. The new rule reads: If it's sturdy and can be scooped out, stuff it; if it's only sturdy, wrap something more delicate around it. These "food packages" are at once tastier, more attractive and more nutritious than anything on a Carr's Table Water Cracker, points out Mark Newville, chef-owner of Visiting Chefs.

The one thing caterers caution hosts about is too many different dishes, even hors d'oeuvres. Terry Marcantonio, catering director at Someplace Special, Giant Gourmet, in McLean, says too many choices slow down the buffet line at a big party. And, she says, no matter how many different options there are, the host looks bad if one item runs out. So better to have more of few things than less of more, if you catch her drift. Which is why she recommends against offering shrimp: "You could haul a whole boatload in from the Eastern Shore and still run out." For the stubborn, she advises that you allow four to six shrimp per person at a buffet . . . and then run for cover.

Many hosts and hostesses who cook their own party dinners like the variety and sophistication that professional hors d'oeuvres provide (and many caterers are happy to sell their food on this retail basis); you can count on at least $1 per hors d'oeuvre. But Leah Spencer, owner of Fete Accomplie, points out that it's not hard to do something elegant on one's own. "Anyone can cook canned snails in garlic and olive oil and serve them in little snail-shape pastry shells from Giant Gourmet. And a side of smoked salmon will keep a whole lot of people happy." Salmon's a classic, and, she points out, department store food shops sell it at unbeatable prices. (Even more special, perhaps, is the smoked trout smoked by the Farm at Mt. Walden, in The Plains, Va.)

Just as you can go to caterers and private chefs for just part of the fare, so can you consider restaurants a resource. You love the dim sum at your local Chinese place, or the sushi at your lunch spot downtown? What makes a fine starter dining out might be a delightful surprise at your holiday cocktail party. (With restaurants, you can usually expect to pay the menu price for the items you order.)

The Heart of the Meal

With people entertaining more but on smaller budgets, parties are quickly heading back toward straightforward food -- hams and turkeys. And, though some people may not have much beef at home, Spencer says, they'll happily eat beef tenderloin at a party.

Big birds and roasted joints may be basic, but there's a lot of local creativity available within the category. At Honey Baked Hams, which has six area shops, hams can be ordered according to the number of people to be served. The Farm at Mt. Walden is offering smoked goose, turkey, quail and -- yes, Bill Homan -- pheasant. Jordan's, a six-month-old restaurant in Leesburg, makes and sells its own rabbit sausage, accompanied by a pear chutney.

But how much of this wonderful food must you have? At a dinner, Leah Spencer recommends about a pound of food per person: half a pound for the entree, a quarter pound for each of two side dishes. For a buffet dinner, say for 24 people, she offers two entrees, one starch, two hot vegetables and a salad (asparagus bundles in vinaigrette, for instance, not a messy tossed salad).

Variety and color are important on the buffet table, but combinations of food are even more critical when guests are being professionally served, according to Homan. "If you're serving beef, or something like grilled fish, surround the main dish with beans and lettuce and a sauce. That way every person can find something he wants. In the same way, a chocolate souffle can be surrounded by fresh fruit."

Delicate Desserts

Katie Hewitt of Desserts by Gerard, in Oxon Hill, says "it's fun" to have three or four little things for everyone," which explains in part the popularity of miniature desserts. But an array of Desserts by Gerard's petits fours, set next to the Visiting Chefs' truffle baskets, hard by La Bonbonniere's little raspberry-lemon mousses is more than fun. It's a little like gazing at Tiffany's jewel cases . . . and then taking your pick.

Washington has long had a reputation for not having good bakeries. But demanding new restaurants have lured talented pastry chefs from around the country and abroad. And a number of those chefs have gone out on their own, sometimes in unpromising-looking outposts.

For those who want to do more than merely dabble in desserts, there's Washington's pastry queen, custom baker Ann Amernick. Her Della Robbia fruitcake, made with real fruit, is trimmed with hand-painted marzipan fruits and leaves. Her petits fours can be brushed with edible gold leaf or topped with a tiny painting -- a jewel-like touch that is also edible, but, thank goodness, can be made to last long after the party is over.

In general, tarts, pastries and petits fours cost from 95 cents to several dollars each, and you can usually figure a serving of cake in the same range. Like anything else, that can add up. But, then, there probably aren't any people more important in this holiday season than your guests.