How do you order at a restaurant?

Simple question, right? Perhaps. But how often we have left meal, disappointed and thinking, "If only I had ordered the right thing?"

There are no foolproof guidelines for ordering the right dishes when dining out. However, here are 10 common menu problems and suggestions for solving them.

1. The menu is lengthy, ranging the world over in offering past and present trendy dishes of every variety.

Choices include crepes, quiches, beef and seafood casseroles, Italian standards, Mexican tacos, Southern fried chicken -- even Belgian waffles and three kinds of pancakes.

What to do?

First, be skeptical. No restaurant does everything well.

Second, such a range of choices may be a signal that many dishes are reposing in flash-frozen states, awaiting the handy microwave. So, how to proceed?

If a few dishes are listed as house specials, ask the waiter if that means they are made fresh daily.Another thought is that such places often do a huge business in beef dishes such as London broil. Thus, ordering such a simply prepared dish may be safe. If neither approach works, order the least exotic dishes in the middle price range.

2. The menu is written in a flowery, effusive style.

Everything is delicious, guaranteed to please, it's all home-made, garden fresh, cooked to perfection. Beware.

A recent study of menu language by a professor or linguistics at Ohio State University concluded that menus use strange and fatuous language "designed not to transmit information but to sound attractive. In most cases 'fresh' on a menu doesn't mean that what you're eating hasn't been frozen -- it means they want you to think it tastes good. People don't take it seriously any more than they take 'homemade' seriously on a menu."

In the District of Columbia, the Department of Environmental Services has published a menu dictionary, which is available free by calling 724-4102. The department also receives complaints about menu misrepresentation. If the department determines that the restaurant is misrepresenting something on a menu and the restaurant does not correct it, the department makes public the name of the restaurant and the cause of the complaint.

In Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland there are efforts to follow up with truth-in-menu complaints but no jurisdiction has gone as far as the District in dealing with the problem.

Suggestions: Disregard the menu's rhetoric and use your own eyes (you can learn a lot by seeing what other diners are eating) and your own common sense. The day's special scrawled on a piece of paper clipped to the top of the menu may be the best dish in the house, regardless of the other claims.

3. The menu specializes in one kind of food, such as seafood. But in the lower left corner it lists dishes completely different.

Be conservative. Assume that the place is best at what it features.

4. The restaurant specializes in one sort of food, such as seafood, but there are so many choices you are confused about ordering.

First, see if your waiter will tell you what is fresh as opposed to fresh frozen. There's a difference that never seems to show up on a menu.

Second, remember fifth grade geography. Where does the fish come from? In the Washington area, crab and oysters may well be fresh since we live near the Eastern Shore. By contrast, Alaskan king crab legs are a long way from home.

Also, to everything there's season. Oysters run in months with an "R" in the name. So they won't be fresh in the summer.

5. The menu ranges wildly in price.

Some dishes are $3.50, others $15.95. This is a signal of something, but it may be hard to say what. Are they trying to discourage you from ordering that high-priced dish by pricing it out of sight?

Or are the less expensive entrees skimpy?

Does more money buy a better dish? Or does the place do such a large trade on certain dishes that it can afford to offer them at lower prices?

Well, you might ponder these questions, and well you may be stumped. Experimentation may be in order, possibly leading to the wrong dishes. Live and learn.

6. The menu is in a foreign language with no translations.

You are baffled. Find a waiter or manager for consulation. Or ask other diners in the restaurant for suggestions. Don't be timid. In this way youu often can get an authentic ethnic meal, rather than an Americanized watered down version.

7. the menu says one thing, the waiter hints at another.

Listen to your waiter. Nine times out of 10, he knows what he's saying. If he is unenthusiastic, forget it. If he is emphatic about a dish's merits, try it.

8. As you leave, not greatly satisified with your meal, you notice that people are eating dishes you never saw listed on the menu.

A lot of places, particularly Italian and Greek, offer daily dishes that never show up in writing anywhere. Steady customers simply know to ask, "What's good today?" and they get it. It's always a good idea to routinely inquire about this, wherever you go. Delightful surprises may follow.

9. You are at a hotel for dinner.

It is part of a chain, though perhaps locally franchised. The menu is "continental," meaning lobster tails, prime ribs and Delmonico steak, a few fish and veal dishes. How to choose?

You are safest at ordering beef. Usually, large hotels do a huge business in prime ribs, catering to businessmen and professional conventions. They buy good quality meat, sell a lot of it, prepare it well and serve large portions. Most other dishes, lobster, veal and fish, will be of the frozen variety.

10. Remember Eliot's law: Nothing is so good as it seems beforehand.