Atmosphere: Deli-like. A sign at the door warns, "No bare feet or bare chests."

Hours: Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. until 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. until 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. until 8:30 p.m.

Price Range: Sandwiches range from $1.25 to $4.95, other main course dishes from $1.75 (for two eggs) to $7.95 (for a sirloin steak).

Reservations: Not accepted.

Credit Cards: Visa and Mastercharge.

Special Facilities: Ample onstreet parking; booster chairs but no high chairs; in terms of wheelchair access, there is one step but it's no problem.

Ask transplanted New Yorkers what they miss most about the Big Apple and they're likely to tell you "deli food." Barbecued pork and hush puppies have their place, but they're no substitute when someone is seized by a craving for pastrami, corned beef or lox on a bagel.

At its best, deli food is distinct and unsissifed -- garlic flavors are garlicky, bread bounces back when you touch it and a pickle is never sweet. In a good deli, meats and fishes -- often salty, spiced or smoked -- take on the kind of character pasteurized out of deli foods available in supermarkets and most sandwich shops. Deli sandwiches mean business.

So it was with nostalgic anticipation that we recently followed Shirley Highway to the Shirlington Deli, which several sources had told us was the best deli in town. With us we took three children of an absent electioneering friend: 5-year-old Kevin, 8-year-old Ami and teen-ager Pat, three hearty eaters who had grown up below the Mason-Dixon line and therefore had never experienced the special kind of greediness that deli food elicits.

The looks of the place made us hopeful; not too fancy, but not greasy spoon; a formica-table restaurant with high-backed booths; real deli territory -- the kind of place children feel comfortable in.

Service was extremely pleasant, a departure from New York deli tradition that we found ourselves adjusting to readily. We were grateful that tips are based on price, not mileage -- our waitress made at least eight different trips for drinks alone, never got surly and didn't wince when Ami ordered deli meat on white bread.

The food, however, was disappointing. Some dishes were excellent and only two items were lousy, but many things we tried were merely adequate. Maybe we expected too much, but if the Shirlington Deli was ever as good as it's reputed to be, it seems to be suffering now from complacency.

For starters, we ordered three landmarks of deli cuisine. The borscht ($1.25) was appropriately beet red and served with huge dollops of sour cream. But it was thin and mildly sweet, slightly unsettling on first bite but ultimately satisfying since the beet taste was refreshing on a hot day. The herring in sour cream ($1.95) was no better than some we've bought at the Safeway. The potato pancakes with applesauce ($3.25), spotted instantly by all three children, were made from mashed -- not grated -- potatoes. I've had far better, but it's difficult for a potato pancake to be a failure, and the four that came with our order disappeared with no kvetching from the children.

Kevin, steered away from a tuna sandwich, ordered a hot dog and got kosher knockwurst ($3.25) -- because we wanted to taste it. So much for orchestrating what a child eats: he picked at it -- it was so-so -- but devoted most of his extraordinary appetite to the dishes the rest of us ordered. Undaunted by the description of Sandwich pi63 ($4.50, a variation on the Reuben), fearless Ami ordered corned beef, pastrami, swiss cheese, cole slaw and Russian dressing -- on white. It arrived on rye, but the waitress cheerfully made a switch. A good choice, which appeared to be more than enough -- but was not too much for Ami. Pat found the pastrami sandwich she ordered lacking, until we perked it up with some of the well-seasoned cole slaw from Ami's pi63.

My partner ordered a kippered salmon sandwich ($4.95) and said it was okay, but not special -- and with all the fixing, there didn't seem to be much taste of kippered salmon. I had more luck with the Nova Scotia lox platter ($6.25), despite an odd sweetness to the bagel that came with it; the salmon was tasty and not too salty, and there was plenty of it. (Ami, who had never tasted it before, went wild. Her parents will probably kill me for the long-term expense.)

The potato salad served with many dishes was above average. The pickles were good -- not great, but good. The black olives that came with my platter were delicious.

Desserts? Having overloaded on the sandwiches, we went easy on the sweets, and just as well. The children ordered cherry blintzes with sour cream ($3.25) to share, on our advice. These blintzes were the worst I've ever tasted and still would have been, even if they hadn't been scorched. Surprised at our reaction, the waitress suggested we try the cheese blintzes next time. But she steered us the right way on the carrot cake ($1.10) which was every bit as good as she predicted; next time I'm in the neighborhood, I may pop in for a carrot cake pick-me-up. n

The children, being children, took advantage of a "rare" opportunity to drink cokes. The bottle of celery soda I ordered for curiosity's sake -- "It tastes like celery!" -- got a token sip each from everyone, but no more. The draft Bud (75 cents a mug, $1.85 a pitcher) was nice while it lasted, but the deli's supply ran out. We made the mistake then of trying a glass of draft "classic dark," which was even worse than the blintzes: thick and effervescent, it looked like Pepsi, tasted like diet beer and put a damper on the meal (which came to $43.04, tip included).

You'd have to be pretty nostalgic for New York to love the Shirlington Deli, because there are so many clinkers on its enormous menu. Stick to the safe dishes like corned beef (which is delicious) and carrot cake, and you can have a nice meal in a real deli atmosphere.