Open Mondays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., closed Sundays. Free parking at Star Parking Plaza, 1006 E Street NW. Accessible by wheelchair. American Express, Bank Americard, Carte Blanche, Master Charge, Visa. Reservations not necessary.

On the message side of the postcards used by Hammel's Restaurant, it says modestly that this downtown place is "known the country over for the quality of its food." We didn't want to doubt that, but on the night we arrived, those who knew must have had something else going.

The front dining room looked just as it does in the photo on th card: empty. There was life in the back room, however, where a Greek christening party was beginning to break up. But don't leave yet - for we didn't, and we ate well.

Besides, it might have been the foul weather this particular Saturday evening. At any rate (and we'll talk about the rates in just a bit), our waiter wasn't letting the sea of tablecloths get to him. Ever so smoothly, he slid us into a largetable, distributed the reading matter and went to find two cokes and two mrgaritas.

Being the only people there are being intensely eyed by a restaurant official wya in the back, we would have found it difficult to keep our cool had it not been for a chilly breeze whistling around our table. The waiter, perhaps hearing the chatter of our 10-year-old son's teeth from across the room, made a thoughtful offer of a jacket, which was bravely declined.

Indeed, this waiter proved to be superb at his craft, taking us under his wing and sharing friendly tips about the menu offerings (which may well have been the only tips around to share at that point).

He was quick to note, for example, that the roast beef on this evening was pretty well done, which to our rare-fare foursome is a worthwhile warning. Better to invest that $7.25 in something else.

Most of the somethings else, you should know, are in the same price range, which is hefty for feeding children unless they're prepared to dig in while you shell out. Each price, however, does include soup of the day or tomato juice, salad (roquefort got more votes than th ehouse dressing) and au gratin or baked potatoes.

Along with good fresh bread came a fine French onion soup for three of us, while our 8-year-old daughter ordered a juice that she eventually lateraled to me.

After a brief consulation with the waiter, who suggested that maybe the veal cutlet Francais at $7.75 might be a tad skimpy for a hungry boy and that the kebab had only about four pieces of meat, our son ordered big: a broiled sirloin steak, at $8.50. It was huge, all right, and beautifully rare.

Our daughter didn't care about the alleged skimpiness of the veal and, as it turned out, there was plenty on the plate for her. My wife tried Hammel's Baked Imperial Crab at $7.75, which was impressively rich with crabmeat. I chose roast duckling, at $6.95, which, except for some rubbery tangerine slices around it, was the way it should be and so often isn't: moist, soft and tasty.

In time, the total customer population of the four of us would double and then triple - which meant that those eyes in the back couldn't see us anymore and we could look around. And that included a trip upstairs to the rest rooms that are marked with old art-deco "Men" and "Ladies" signs.

Hammel's has been around since 1904 - and presumably the gilt-frame paintings, monogrammed plates, grand chandeliers, old-brown wall-length draperies and Venus de Milo lamp are efforts at oldtime elegance.It's all a bit too-too, but we found it funny and many today remain loyally fond of the place.

For desserts, one may choose rum cake, cheese cake or almond pralines at $1.25, but ourones chose to let everything else settle. I then settled for a total of $39.91 plus tip.