El Caribe

3288 M Street NW. 338-3121.

Hours: Mondays through Thursdays from noon to 3 p.m. and 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Fridays from noon to 3 p.m. and 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.; Saturdays from 1 to 11:30 p.m.; Sundays from 1 to 11 p.m.

Atmosphere: An attractive setting, attentive waiters and thoughtfully prepared dishes from South America and Spain that children can order comfortably.

Price range: A vast selection of entrees, from roast chicken at $5.25 to a fancy New York steak at $9.95.

Credit cards: American Express, Carte Blanche, Diners Club, Master Charge, VISA.

Reservations: Best you do, for this is a popular place.

Special facilities: Accessible by wheelchair. Parking toward the rear of the building, or play road roulette Georgetown-style.

In came the call from an adventuresome family we know: How about choosing up sides and testing E1 Caribe in Georgetown? Would it hold a candle to its sister of the same name in Adams-Morgan?

We would have a ringer with us for our test -- a lively Venezuelan student named Carlos, who happened to be staying with our friends.

There was discount parking off an alley toward the rear of E1 Caribe, but as a result of rare good fortune (and just maybe because it was quite early on a fiercely cold night), we landed a quasi-legal spot to the side of that alley.

Inside is a warm place in all senses -- a series of candlelit alcoves and arches, old wood and stucco, ship models and bottles and even a red-tiled bar in a back room and original art in the restrooms.

Good thing we had reservations for our party of nine: It was only 6:30 and already the tables were filling up. We began filling up, too, with soft drinks and some Carta Blanca and San Miguel beer.

The menu cover explains that E1 Caribe presents favorite foods from all around South America and Spain, a collection of dishes "from recipes given to us by our Latin American friends and customers."

The collection is no stingy bequest, either; there are good ideas from everywhere.

Our initial round included three orders of Empanaditas de Los Andes, $1.95 each, which were extremely popular meat pastries while they lasted. A $1.25 order of Tostones (that's fried green bananas) didn't sell quite so well: not like home-cooking, reported Carlos.

Also appearing briefly was somebody's order of a tossed salad, $1.25, and a big basket of bread that landed at mid-court and then bounced from side to side.

For entrees, the operative word for children was pollo (pole-yo), which means chicken. Our 12-year-old son, his 9-year-old sister and a young lady whom we'll call Christy (since that's her name) chose Pollo Asado, $5.25, a roast chicken beautifully marinated in Spanish seasonings that aren't the barn-burners most kids fear.

Christy's sister Karen and their mom each tried an order of -- here goes -- Fritadas con Llapingachos, $6.75, which is an Ecuadorean dish of pork baked with sweet banana, yuca and camote, served with cheese patties and, as is every entree, with beans and rice.

The yuca, some of us thought, tasted about the way it sounds, sort of like a blotter dipped in lemon sauce. But the pork held its own amid an assortment of intriguing flavors.

The other dad quietly put away all but a few samples of his Zarzuela de Mariscos, $7.95, a casserole from La Costa Brava, made of shrimp, scallops, clams, fish, mussels and squid, with white wine and "simmered in a tangy sauce."

Now, squid isn't something your everyday kid longs for -- but two of the girls who tried a bite (and here's the squid pro quo: they weren't told what it was) said it was all right.

My wife tried the Boliche Mechado, $6.95, "eye round roast stuffed with Spanish sausage, braised in a rich brown sauce," a pleasing enough offering. Carlos, meanwhile, was enjoying Pollo al Champignon, $6.50, chicken sauteed in mushroom-and-almond sauce. My discovery was Gallinita Valenciana, $5.95, an excellent baby hen in sherry sauce.

There were only two young takers initially for chocolate mousse, $1.25, but in due course the Fraternal Orders of Mousse doubled.

Add two coffees to all this, blend in a pinch of tax and -- note well, a 17 percent tip was already included in our bill -- and the grand total for nine, when broken down for our family of four, cames out to a share of $37.35 plus tip.

That's maybe a trifle high for a regular stop, but if you factor in the atmosphere, service and cuisine (and if you don't try to eat everything in sight), you come up with a first-rate, specialouting place for families with children who have busted out of the boosterchair brigade.