{sstar} (1 star) Tonic

3155 Mt. Pleasant St. NW (near Kilbourne Place). 202-986-7661. www.tonicrestaurant.com.

Open: for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. (dinner available until one hour later in the bar); for brunch Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations accepted for parties of six or more. Smoking in bar area only. Not wheelchair accessible. Metro: Columbia Heights. Prices: dinner appetizers $4.95 to $7.95, entrees $5.95 to $17.95; brunch entrees $5.95 to $11.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $35 to $45 per person.

The man and woman standing in front of me in the foyer at Tonic are holding the hands of two little kids, and the two people in front of them are cradling a baby and an infant car seat. Inside the dining room, the background music is drowned out by what sounds like Romper Room Gone Wild: occasional high-pitched shrieks, squeals of laughter and active little feet.

The man ahead of me in line notices I'm not attached to a child. "You know it's Wednesday night, right?" he asks.

"Right," I reply, uncertain where the conversation is headed.

"Kids eat free here on Wednesday nights, till 8 o'clock" the stranger says, which explains why we're waiting for a table in Mount Pleasant before 6 on a weeknight. With that, a waitress beckons him and his tribe into the apricot-hued boombox. Half the crowd in there appears to be parents and the other half seems to be their offspring, munching on such kid-friendly foods as grilled cheese sandwiches, cheese pizza, macaroni and cheese, and corn dogs (served with tater tots, naturally). Butcher paper covers the tabletops, which are set with votive candles -- and little jars of crayons.

It's not just Wednesday that draws neighbors to Tonic, a townhouse previously known as the Italian restaurant Bella Roma. On Tuesday nights, select bottles of wine are offered free with the purchase of two entrees. And in the downstairs bar, weeknight happy hours find patrons sipping half-priced beer, eating burgers for $4.25 and watching whatever happens to be playing on the plasma TVs. The bar, low-ceilinged and walled with bricks, is dark, smoky and often SRO.

"Tonic: Cures What Ails You." Or so promises the very American menu, which the restaurant's owners, former bartenders Jeremy Pollok and Eric "Bernie" Bernstrom, put together with the help of former restaurant chefs Christy Velie and Tom Przystawik, who run a business specializing in cooking classes, catering and consulting. In this case, Pollok and Bernstrom submitted a wish list of dishes, and the chefs provided them with recipes, ingredient suppliers and cooking tips. Pollok, Bernstrom and Rene Bolanos, a holdover from Bella Roma, handle the kitchen duties.

In theory, the idea behind Tonic is a good one. No marquee chef in the kitchen means lower prices in the dining room. But several meals in this small dining room, attractively decorated with French art posters, have revealed a work very much in progress. On my Wednesday visit, I overheard a father ask his young son, seated before a bowl of macaroni and cheese, if the two of them should "wrap up the extra for Mommy." The boy vigorously shook his head no. Having ordered the pasta myself that very same meal, I knew what he meant: The tubes of pasta were heavy with nutmeg, the cheese was minimal, and a pool of orange oil slicked the bowl.

You're in luck if you like pork. Pan-fried pork chops are tender from a soak in pineapple juice, spiked with cayenne and oregano, and made crisp in the pizza oven, while barbecued pork shoulder proves tender and tangy. Sweet baked beans and creamy coleslaw share the barbecue's plate, as does a square of cornbread that comes with an unfortunate sprinkle of sugar. The pizzas, named after local streets, are respectable. In the "Columbia" -- one of my favorites -- cheese, fresh spinach and asparagus are scattered on a thin, crisp crust. And the vegetable-sweetened meatloaf, available in warm slabs as an entree or inside a sandwich, suggests someone's mom is working in the kitchen. Either way you try it, it's a gentle comfort. Pepper is a minor theme in some dishes. A nice blast of it can be found in the chunky blue cheese dip that accompanies an appetizer of chicken wings, whose skins are slightly crisp and powerfully tangy. Pepper also makes itself known in the grits alongside a brunch order of scrambled eggs and pancakes -- aptly titled Big Ol' Breakfast -- and the tasty mashed potatoes that come with some entrees.

Details here and there indicate that Tonic wants to be about more than pub grub. Alone, the New York strip steak is bland and juiceless -- a blank, really -- but it's topped with a rousing anchovy butter sauce that gives the entree a much-needed boost. Roast chicken might be overcooked, but I like its crunchy coat (the secret to its success: cornflakes, chili powder, black sesame seeds and ground almonds). And a recent soup special, abundant with bites of salmon and potato, trumpeted summer with sweet-tasting corn and fresh thyme. Good stuff.

Other dishes cry out for a nip and tuck -- no, make that a complete makeover -- such as the Moroccan couscous. "Vegetarians eat your heart out!" its description brags. Yet the swamp of dry grains, dull vegetables and indefinite seasoning tastes like a ploy by the beef, pork and poultry councils to recruit those who don't eat meat. And chicken fricassee is something you could make at home with a can of chunky chicken soup and some egg noodles. Like a lot of the entrees, it is served in a portion big enough to satisfy multiple appetites.

The dining room staff, made up mostly of young women, is eager to please, but not as efficient or attentive as you might wish. One night, I watched one of them take an order, sans paper or pen, for a neighboring group of diners. "I always get nervous when they don't write things down," one of the customers confided to her companions after the server left. Sure enough, the waitress forgot to bring cocktails and a salad. Warm red wine is a constant problem here; once, when I asked to have a bottle chilled to the proper temperature, my server's solution was to recommend white wine instead. Just because they're working in a casual restaurant doesn't mean they shouldn't take the job seriously.

On the surface, Tonic looks pretty good. Yet my meals here remind me that not all jobs are easily outsourced. In this case, I want dinner to taste more like a real chef is in the kitchen -- not the shadow of one.

Ask Tom

Dining at Vidalia recently, Mara Karlin and family found themselves seated next to a table of people who "had clearly had too much to drink" and were "exceedingly loud, practically shouting," the Washington reader reported in an e-mail. "They really disturbed this special meal," Karlin continued, "and after trying to give them looks (which had no impact), I finally asked the waitress if it would be possible for someone to ask them to quiet down. She explained it is 'not Vidalia's policy' to ask such a request of other customers." When I contacted the restaurant's general manager, Michael Nevarez, to ask him about Karlin's complaint, he said the waitress had gotten it wrong. Typically, he said, disruptive guests are approached by someone in charge and asked to stop whatever behavior is bothering their fellow patrons. In some situations, the diners causing the problem are relocated to another part of the restaurant (and in extreme cases, they may be asked to leave). In Karlin's case, speaking directly to the manager might have ended with better results. But that wouldn't have been necessary if the waitress had been more responsive from the start.

Got a dining question? Send your thoughts, wishes and, yes, even gripes to asktom@washpost.com or to Ask Tom, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include daytime telephone number.