"Brunch?" said gravel-voiced Thomas Phillips, owner, manager and sometimes cook at the Southern Diner, a soul food restaurant at 1616 Seventh St. NW, about two blocks from the O Street Market and across the street from the old boarded-up Shaw Junior High School.

He said "brunch" again, quickly pondering a word out of place in a neighborhood sprinkled with boarded-up buildings and street corners where the employed or unemployable stand vulnerable and idle like straw men.

"We got a breakfast, a lunch and then a dinner, but we ain't got no brunch," said Phillips, a Warren, Ark., native with a warm hearted grin that intimated the unspoken question, where do you think you are?

It's half past 11 in the glaring sunshine outside, but inside the dimly lit diner, a haven for the lonely, the hungry and the hurried, time is meaningless for those like Ray Wilson, 54, and blind Harold Hawkins, an ex-boxer known as "Baltimore." Without the companionship they find at the diner, both men would face empty or hostile homes.

Some of them come for coffee and a slice of "Miss Ada" Shipman's sweet potato pies she has baked at the same diner for nearly 25 years, after leaving the cotton fields of Clayton, Ala.

Cutomers sit in clusters of twos and threes, mostly men, at the gold speckled white formica tables, trading teases, tall tales and miseries.

The Southern Diner is a neighborhood meeting place where the regulars are survivors who greet visitors with a wary eye.

"Lately, because the times are getting tougher, I've seen fewer people coming here," said William Walker, 72, a retired truck and cabdriver who, ever since his deeply religious wife died two years ago, refuses to cook at home nearby. Seven days a week, Walker, 4-feet-10, eats breakfast and dinner at the diner. His friends call him Shorty.

Behind the stainless steel food counter, Sheila Tyler, 28, serves up the turnip greens, the chitterlings (pronounced chit-lens), baked chicken and barbeque spareribs. A large lunch costs about $3.50.

Back in the kitchen, nearly dwarfed by huge stainless steel pots hanging overhead, "Miss Ada," who is hard of hearing, ladles out the dishes with all the "loving and kindness" that is her motto.

"People who eat my cooking as kids during the years I have been here keep coming when they grow up," said Miss Ada. "Child, I have no idea how many people I cook for, I never use any recipes. After so many years, you know the routine.

"All I do is just keep it coming," she said.