Hours: Breakfast from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., lunch from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Atmosphere: Like sitting at a European outdoor cafe. Watch the passing parade.

Credit cards: No.

Reservations: No.

Special Facilities: Access by wheelchair would be difficult, since Market Lunch is raised one step off the floor of the market.

Some of us harbor visions of the perfect hash house. First of all, it would be a place close to home. It does Washingtonians no good when savants inform us of the ambrosial hash browns available at a diner 10 miles east of Sedalia, mo.

Second, there would be a crew of hardened Annie Oakley types staffing the place. They probably would push stray hanks of hair out of their eyes with the backs of their hands. They would act gruff but have hearts of marshmallow.

Last, they would serve the kind of food that makes you want to stand up and sing "The Star Spangled Banner" -- down-home stuff like chili and crab cakes and onion rings with cole slaw and French fries on the side.

Well, guess what? Take the Metro to 7th and Pennsylvania SE, walk half a block north to the Eastern Market at 7th and D SE. Inside is a hash house that will make you forget Sedalia.

Market Lunch operates from 7 a.m. to about 2:30 p.m. on market days (usually Tuesday through Saturday,) and serves home fries that would make mother hang her head in shame and chili that would bring tears to a Texan's eyes.

If you're skeptical about the popularity of Market Lunch, try hanging around at 2:30 p.m. and watch them try to close up.Customers beg for just five more minutes and one more crab cake sandwich, vowing they will never ever ask another favor. Eventurning out the lights didn't help the day we were there.

Tucked into a corner of Eastern Market, Market Lunch includes all of three tables plus a long counter, and operates on the cafeteria principle. Instead of pristine steam tables, though, what you see in front of you as you order is a working kitchen.

After you've paid, you have your choice of sitting down or wandering among the market stalls munching as you go. The food is so good and so cheap that it can erase years of painful memories of lousy $20 meals. The mental lists of tinny canned potatoes and limp iceberg lettuce melt away with one bit of creamy crab cake or bite-sized hunk of real potato fried crisp and served piping hot.

For 95 cents, you get a huge styrofoam cup -- we're not talking elegance, we're talking food -- full of some of the lushest chili in Washington. Spiced and peppered to perfection, it's made from chunks of beef instead of the usual ground stuff. It stops just short of being truly incendiary.

Or for $1, you get a bun piled high with homemade pork barbecue perfectly flavored and tender, and stacked with cole slaw if you want it. Inquiries are made from the cook about your feeling toward hot pepper sauce and, after some negotiation, a mutually agreed-upon dollop is added.

The freshest fish is filleted, floured and fried, then served either as a full meal with two side orders, or on a bun. The same with sweet fried oysters, when the season is right, as it is now. A two-crab cake platter cost $4.50, and the fish or oyster platter will cost you $3.50.

And the service? When my daughter ordered a ham sandwich, she was asked to supervise its construction -- down to specifying whether she wanted the mustard and mayonnaise on the ham or on the bread.

When a dispute erupted among us over who would order first and who would stay behind to save a table, an employe volunteered to save our table so we could all order at once.

In fact, the place was such a hit with our four-person teenage contingent that they went back to square one with French fries and chili dogs after they'd already had dessert with the first meal.

Everything is made from scratch at Market Lunch, I was told, except the hot dogs, the bread for sandwiches, and the onion rings. I could have sworn the onion rings were homemade, such is their sweetness and light.

Desserts aren't listed on the menu, but three were offered the day we were there. Cheesecake proved to be substantial and creamy. It was less sweet tan other versions and a perfect finale for a meal that began with chile or barbecue. Pecan and apple pie were also offered and were equal to mom's best.

As a special bonus, there's shopping in the market if you can still walk after your meal. Everything from imported cheese to fruits and vegetables to country butter to meat and fish is available inside and in the stalls on the street. Boutiques abound in the neighborhood too, offering antiques, gifts, clothing and more.

While we wandered around the area, we pondered the fact that this pig-out for six, including three teenage boys, cost a mere $22.70. Now who says America is in decline?