Hours: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Atmosphere: Neighborly and cozy.

Price Range: Entrees, $4.25 to $7.95; Special dinner (soup appetizers, etc), $6.55 per person.

Reservations: Advisable for large grops and on weekends.

Credit Cards: All major; no checks

Special Facilities: Accessible for wheelchairs; highchairs and booster seats, Free parking in shopping center lot.

We drove vast stretches of the Beltway and several miles of the Baltimore-Washington Expressway to find Chinato, a Chinese restaurant recommended by a reader who had learned about it when taking an extension course in Chinese cooking at Bowie High School.

Located in one of those extraordinarily ordinary shopping centers (supermarket, gas station, Irish pub), Chintao had a plainer than plain facade, but inside, the restaurant exuded a pleasant Asiatic warmth. Wood paneling, painted a rich Chinese red, had a large, fire-breathing golden dragon and a graceful, well-feathered golden peacock superimposed over it. Another wall set off gentle watercolor prints.

The 11 tables, all big enough to seat four or more, were covered with fresh white tablecloths. Most were filled by other family groups -- babies in highchairs, teen-agers in jeans -- clearly a neighborhood crowd.

Our first impression, and the one that lasted throughout dinner, was that of good cheer. "Good evening, how are you?" Chintao's hostess greeted us with a big smile and a choice of large or small table, one against a wall or out in the middle. "Whatever you prefer," she offered.

Out waitress had the same smile and demeanor. "Good evening.How are you? Would you like a drink? Would the children like Cokes? Are you ready to order?"

Chintao's cuisine is in the Peking style. Dishes in the hot and spicy range were printed in red and accompanied by a promise to alter the spices according to taste.

Several of us were just recovering from the flu and wanted soft, soothing flavors. Our children started off with wonton soup, 85 cents a serving, which was on the bland side. The wonton itslef, though, had more character -- chewy and rich. I had the hot and sour soup, 95 cents, a mildly spicy soup with a good, hearty flavor. My husband tried the imperial soup, $1.75 a blend of broth, crabmeat and bean thread noodles. He said it was superb and proved it by letting us all taste the brew.

In a radical departure from appetizer tradition, we decided to add Chinese fried dumplings, $2.25, to our usual order of egg rolls, $1.55. The dumplings were a melange of ground meat and vegetables stuffed into a wonton-like pastry that had been pan fried. We found them interesting but not nearly as perfect as the egg rolls which Chintaoa manages to fry to beautiful crispness and stuff with a tart and richa vegetable mixture.

Since Chintao's prices were reasonable, we decided to splurge on one of the top-of-the-line dishes -- lobster Peking, $7.25. We never had a moment's regret. One of us, who likes his vegetables on the soft side, carped that the broccoli flowerettes were too crisp, but the rest of us considered them just right, and so were the ample and juicy bits of lobster, the snow peas, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and lovely light sauce that bound them all together.

On the more practical side, we ordered a family favorite, moo-shi pork $4.75. We had debated whether we should since the last time we had Chinese food, the moo-shi pork was deplorable and we were ready to strike the dish from our family repertoire. Chintao not only revived our interest in this dish that is part crepe, part stir fry combination of pork, Chinese mushrooms and vegetables, but presented us with one of the best plum sauces (the accompanying spicy sauce that is spread on the crepe-like pancake) that we've ever had. And the pancakes! They had texture, enough weight to carry the filling, yet a light enough taste to perform the background-only function.

Our third and last entree was chicken with pineapple, $4.55. I found it too sweet, but the rest of the family swore it had considerable merit. The chicken pieces were exceptionally tender and the pineapple was applied in moderation.

Although our water glasses were refilled regularly and without asking, tea for two (only two in our family drink tea) had to be specially ordered. I mention this only to show that all was not perfection, although Chintao came very, very close. Even the fortune cookies were better than usual.

Our only regret was that a meal which we thoroughly enjoyed, which was served with friendly efficiency and which cost us only $29.56, including tax, a glass of wine and a bottle of beer, was a 45-minute drive from our home. t