In all our jaunts to eateries that abide offspring, I had never once considered rolling our troupe into Trudie Ball's Empress Restaurant on Vermont Avenue - and there's a reason. A dumb reason: For many of us at The Post, the Empress is one of the neighborhood lunch favorites and it just didn't occur to me to "do" it formally with my family in tow. But on this particular post-office-hour Friday, we'd already taken off in the Venerable Volvo and buzzed Capitol Hill twice to no avail - first at a spot much too fawn-cy for our foursome and then at one a little too seedy unless you're into pool-hall dining. With two such false starts, true gritty hunger had set in and as we continued to cruise the downtown arteries, a hardening of dispositions had overtaken the tourist class in the back seat. So when we passed the Empress, a mere block from where our ill-fated odyssey had begun, a voice cried out (it matters not whose and I forget, anyhow), "What's-a-matter with the Empress?" I was forthrightly noncommital and, if truth were to be known, rather grumpy, too, after a long, diet-dampened week. So why not? We lucked into a parking space around the corner on K Street, next to one of those wooden walls with the peepholes for sidewalk-superintendents who like to watch huge construction projects. Downstairs at the Empress is where the bargain-basement buffet fans gather at lunchtime for $2.75 apiece, but for dinner we rose to the occasion upstairs, where once you pass the large oriental screen in the dining room doorway, there's a good crowd chowing down. The Empress is not one of your stripped-down, austere Chinese restaurants. For starters, it sports real white tablecloths, rugs, a tiled ceiling and, for newly arrived thrill-seekers, some hallway photos of visits by luminaries the likes of Henry Kissinger. Forget it - we're famished. A waiter is poised and we put in for two Cokes and a like number of Kirin beers (brew from Japan). Needless to say, the menu here is one of those by-the-numbers, name-your-tune charts from which a family can collaborate and commandeer a banquet. That's why we began with four different appetizers, all of which arrived within a startling two-minute period. We'll introduce them numerically, according to their address on the menu: No. 101, chosen by our No. l son of ll years, was an order of two egg rolls, at $1.50, light and crispy. No. 105, my choice, was fried wonton, at $2.10, even lighter and crispier with a snappy pork filling. No. 202 was that fine mainstay that our one-and-only 9-year-old daughter loves, egg drop soup, at 65 cents. My wife selected No. 204, which is a noteworthy hot and sour soup concoction, at 95 cents - a tongue-tingling broth in which swim things called golden needles, wood-ears and bean curds. That, if you add all the numbers, came to 612, to be topped then by what turned out to be an overly ambitious selection of main matters. After whipping into his order of No. 306, chicken with peanuts in spiced sauce, at $5.40, our son whistled some barely audible message to the effect that it was a zinger, but good all the same. No. 314, curry chicken, at $5.25, was my satisfying selection. Meanwhile, our daughter was amusing herself by packing mandarin pancakes with mooshi pork, at $4.95. The real tongue-searer, however, was my wife's test of the Szechuan cuisine, No. 514 - the shredded beef in hot sauce, at $5.75. We could list other items, for surely they are all there, from Peking duck for two at $14 to a $9.95 order of "Szechuan whole Maine Lobster" (How's that one?). All was cooked with care, not to mention the proper seasonings - and there was enough to preempt desserts without debate. If you're still going by the numbers, this all came to $32.67 plus tip and a set of fortune cookies with - would you believe - numbered fortunes, written by an obtuse thinker who swears (in No. 469) that "Old age makes us wise and foolish." (Huh?) Well, as they say in old 297, "Love all, trust a few." And for lovable, or at least trustworthy and classy Chinese fare, we suggest sinking your stainless chopsticks into any number of offerings at the Empress.
Atmosphere: An old reliable for Chinese food, and a pleasant cut above your average cardboard-carton carryout.
Price Range: Main dishes - large enough for children to split - from $4.95 on up to lobster at $9.95.
Hours: Monday through Saturday, ll:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and 5 to ll p.m. Sunday, noon to ll p.m.
Special facilities: Seating can be arranged for small children. Access by wheel-chair to main dining room is poor, since stairs to second floor are steep; short steps down, though, to weekday lunch buffet. Street parking sometimes and after 6 p.m.; free parking at the AG outdoor lot on the corner of L Street and Vermont Avenue NW.
Reservations: Not necessary, but it wouldn't hurt to call ahead at peak times.
Credit Cards: All major cards.