Those of us who high-schooled here during what is now overbilled as the "fabulous fifties" winced just a wee bit when the wreckers finally blew away the old Hot Shoppe across from Channel 7 on Connecticut Avenue not long ago. After all, there went what was once the Northwest nerve-center for refugees from Sherman Butler's afternoon TV sock hop at WMAL. Today, there sprouts a cluster of commercial buildings, and the newest eatery of note for all fortyish Fonzies with families is Fiddler's. This is a restaurant that hasn't had time to develop a personality - or at least we found it hard to classify. From the outside, it's a lot of large glass window on the ground floor of an office building, with plenty of space for outdoor tables come spring. The next thing you see is an offputting sign about "proper attire," which, we were to discover, seems to mean anything that fits. Once inside, depending on where you look, you're not sure whether you're in a California hotel lunch-room, a suburban family-food chain outlet or a quasi-cozy neighborhood inn. From a sort of grand goyer, you begin with a wall-long row of coat hooks, most of which are too high for children or, er, short people. After watching one little man try a series of hook shots with his coat, we were ushered to a table next to one of the huge glass windows from which there's a breath-taking view of WJLA (nee WMAL). This room is big, bright and high-ceilinged, with uniformly hung plants and neo-tiffany lamps dropping like stalactites above the no-tablecloth, no-placement settings. What we didn't realize - and what you should know right now - is that there's a much friendlier room full of booths in another section of this complex: dimmer, slightly more intimate and offering the same fare. A gracious young waiter-fellow introduced himself as Mike and for some strange reason seemed genuinely glad to see us or anyone else along his beat, for that matter. In fact, he volunteered cheerily that this particular evening was about as busy as he'd seen it since Fiddler's opened late last year. Mike and his colleagues are all outfitted in sort of college-age Brownie uniforms (you know the color), with gingham shirts and slacks and, for the waitresses, skirts, kerchiefs and yellow shirts with "Fiddlers" written down one side. Drinks - in our case, an unlikely combination of a milk, a Sprite, a pina colada and a bloody Mary - are huge here. So's the menu, a mini-billboard that merits careful study. For one thing, the offerings for children under 12 include barbecued ribs at $2.95, a quarter-pound hamburger or a half-foot-long hot dog for $1.20, a quarter-chicken barbecued for $1.95 - all with potato puffs - or spaghetti plain at $1.50 and with a meat ball at $1.95. The showstopper for all ages here is the salad bar, which takes up another whole wall of that foyer. The admission for children is $1.25, and for adults, $2.95 - which, according to my three companions, leads to quite a trip. It entitles you to stoke up greedily on such items as grapes, alfalfa, cauliflower, beets, mushrooms, chick peas, apples, corn, carrots, croutons, red Italian onions, cucumbers, oranges, sauerkraut and REAL bacon bits - all of which can be coated with bleu cheese, green goddess, thousand-island or a ghastly-pink Russian dressing. "Heavenly," our 8-year-old daughter concluded angelically. The adult entree offerings may be swell, but when the prices are chiefly in the $6.95 to $12.95 range, we could easily hold back in favor of the many other tantalizing options. For example, the four of us shared a sizeable order of baked potato skins at $1.95 - a novel opener. Our 11-year-old son followed up with a half-pound rare hamburger beautifully topped with Swiss cheese and bacon crumbles, along with lettuce, tomato, and kosher-style pickle and fresh fruit, for $3.30. This wasn't your standard, pulverized door-stop-model burger; it was a juicy mound of meat that won the coveted "Tastiest Burger Yet" award. Our daughter chose the child's portion of barbecued ribs, and the child they're talking about must be a pretty hefty tyke, for here came six fat ribs in a snappy sauce. All the portions turn out to be ultra-liberal, three of them arriving with potato puffs, apple slices and red grapes. From the "Overstuffed Sandwiches" column, my wife tried the calzone at $3.75 - a zesty, gargantuan egg roll with ham and Swiss cheese packed in French bread. From a roster of nearly 20 things they're willing to ship into an omelette, I selected a turkey omelette at $3.35. I should have been more adventuresome. Turkey can be dry. Anyway, it was a 9-by-6-incher, and the eggs were fluffy. Desserts, also mammoth, were more than we needed by now. Besides, they get pretty pricy when the range goes to $2.65 for hot fudge brownie cake (even if the ice cream is that fine Haagen-Dazs). After a few more moments of marveling at how the littlest people were the ones hauling back the biggest mountains of booty from the salad bar, we paid our bill of $25.28 plus tip, leapt deftly to snag our coats and headed well-fueled for the car.
Atmosphere: A little bit of everything for any age or appetite.
Price range: From long hot dogs and plump hamburgers at $2.95 to New York strip sirloin at $12.95. Best bets are the children's menu, sandwiches, omelettes and the selections under "Whims" on the menu.
Hours: Mondays through Thursdays from 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Fridays and Saturdays until 2 a.m., Sundays from 5 p.m. to midnight.
Special facilities: Accessible by wheelchair. Chairs for small children. Free parking after 6 p.m. and on weekends in the building's underground garage.
Reservations: Not necessary.
Credit cards: American Express, BankAmericard/Visa and Master Charge.