Atmosphere: Neighborhood casual; Italian menu.

Price Range: Sandwiches at lunch average $2.50; entrees at lunch from $3.25 for cheese ravioli to $6.95 for veal scallops with mushrooms and cream, all about 50 cents higher at dinner. Soup 95 cents at lunch, $1.25 at dinner.

Special Facilities: High chairs and booster seats; no parking; doors wide enough for wheelchairs.

Reservations: Not necessary.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sundays.

When in the course of Christmas vacation, you begin to dread the approach of the next meal even before you have finished cleaning up from the last one, it is time to take the family out to eat. We suggest the Cafe Metropole in Old Town Alexandria. It is inexpensive, attractive, unpretentious, upbeat and the food is good.

To an increasing number of "regulars," the Metropole, which opened at the end of October, fills the need for a good neighborhood restaurant in Old Town. It feels a lot like the trattorias in Italy, only newer and bigger. The walls are brick near the floor and beige stucco above, and are adorned with rustic prints. Chairs have arms and tables have cloths, red-and-white checked (no chianti bottle candles, but straw covered empties line the wood beams near the ceiling).

Owner Ralph Freda, himself an accomplished Italian cook, strolls around in shirtsleeves taking a paternal interest in his customers and their opinions of his establishment.

There are two small bars, one at the front of the first floor dining room and another adjacent to a second dining room upstairs, where on Saturday nights there is belly dancing, on Friday nights disco dancing and on Thursday nights a country blues singer. The bars are far enough from tables that they create a congenial buzz in the dining rooms without making overwhelming noise.

Service is, above all, accommodating. Half-orders of pasta? No problem. Sandwich open face? Pronto. Tea with a shot of bourbon? Served in a wine glass with a dab of whipped cream. Oh, well. Next time we will ask for the tea and bourbon in separate glasses.

Although usually this column focuses on going out for dinner, lunch is included this week for two reasons: First, when the kids are home from school for the holidays, who says evening is the only time you are desperate for something to do? Secondly, the Metropole is a great place to go for lunch. And if the going gets really rough, the Metropole is open for breakfast, too.

For dinner, there is a full Italian menu; for lunch a more limited list at lower prices plus a selection of sandwiches along with salads and soups.

Italian entrees range from chicken piccata in a lemon butter sauce delicate enough to please a sophisticated palate and yet simple enough for children who only eat food plain, to hearty sweet Italian sausages with fried green peppers in a spicy oregano-scented tomato sauce.

Pasta is superb: tender, plump little tortellini filled with meat and cheese are served in broth at lunchtime, and in broth, tomato or bechamel sauce at dinner, gnoccchi comes two ways at dinner, spaghetti three; shells or linguine come bathed in butter, laden with fresh chopped clams.

And there is pizza, good pizza, with a thin, crisp crust.

A specialty is the Metropole's anti-pasto salad, served in a silver-toned compote dish. Large enough for a whole lunch, the salad consists of several layers of salami, provolone cheese and ham, interspersed with tomatoes, pimentos, chick peas and olives in a lively oil and vinegar dressing seasoned with oregano.

The homemade soup, too, is a meal in itself at the Metropole. One day at lunchtime we chose minestrone which posed a severe threat to our well-preserved memories of a certain small trattoria in Bologna. Shrimp bisque and lentil soup these winter days are luring local lunchtimers in from the cold.

The sandwiches at lunch are a varied lot from chicken salad, too finely minced but very fresh, to corned beef, roast beef and a highly respectable hamburger, as well as a robust meatball or cold cut sandwich on sub roll.

Outstanding among the sandwiches is a turkey club made with fresh roasted turkey. As all frustrated deli freaks know, fresh turkey has been largely replaced around town by turkey roll so the real thing is worth a mention here.

Although, desserts at the Metropole are limited, sweet drinks like Irish coffee, hot toddies and buttered rum are plentiful and according to one young source, the Metropole makes a knockout Shirley Temple.