To hear Chris Barrett describe cabaret is to remember uptown ladies and gentlemen, cocktails called Manhattans and the romance of songs like "Seems Like Old Times." Cabaret is not the same as piano bar entertainment. "In a piano bar, the songs are a percentage of what's happening in the room," Barrett says. "In a cabaret, people come expressly to hear the music; they come to be entertained." Not to talk, and not to sing along. Requests, of course, are welcome.

The singer-pianist knows thousands of songs -- with a repertoire that includes show tunes, Top Ten music from the '30s and '40s and contemporary pop -- but he says he is best known for being an interpreter of Broadway tunes. But every song he chooses, he says, must have one crucial thing going for it: "Quality lyrics. Lyrics are the vehicles I use to communicate something, whatever that may be. Of course, a beautiful melody counts, too."

His all-time favorite? " 'My Funny Valentine.' I know it's overdone," he admits. "But it's the song I love best."

Barrett performs Tuesdays through Saturdays at 9 p.m. at the Ritz-Carlton's Terrace Room (2100 Massachusetts Ave. NW). Reservations are suggested. For more information call 293-2100.