Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Monday and Wednesday through Friday; 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday; closed Tuesday.

Atmosphere; Casual and friendly.

Price Range: Dinners from $6.75 to $8.50; appetizers, soups and other a la carte items $1 to $8.50.

Credit cards: Master Card, Visa and Diners Club.

Reservations: A good idea, especially after 7 p.m. on weekends.

Special Facilities: Parking is on the street, although there is a very tiny lot behind the restaurant; accessible to the handicapped.

One of the best recommendations for a restaurant is by word of mouth. Someone discovers a place, likes it and tells his friends. That's how our family first heard about Matuba.

Don't go to Matuba expecting decor that recreates a Japanese garden with tinkling fountains. Nor is there showcase cooking at tableside, as in some Japanese restaurants. There is, however, a bit of showmanship at a raw bar in the back where the chefs wield their fish knives.

The raw bar seems to be the most popular place to dine. Since we had several children in tow, we preferred a table, but we noticed that all the bar seats were quickly taken. Most of the tables filled up as well, later in the evening.

The restaurant is in a storefront beside a movie theater on Columbia Pike.

The long, narrow room is plain and rather bare. A few pictures and fans on the walls are the chief efforts at decoration. There are some nice touches, though, in sparkling white linen tablecloths, pretty crockery, taped Japanese music and the brightly colored kimonos worn by the waitresses.

The food, not the ambiance, is Matuba's drawing card. Most of the dishes we tried were well prepared, pleasantly served, delicious and reasonably priced.

If you are unfamiliar with Japanese food, don't order from the menu by guesswork or you might unintentionally wind up with an entree of raw fish. Ask the waitress for help. There is no children's menu, but the management seems happy to supply extra plates upon request for sharing food.

For the trhee children we went the economical route and ordered only two entrees. With tempura for $7 and chicken teriyaki for $6.75, the children's meals averaged a little more than $4.50 each. Since the portions were generous and came with soup, rice and salad, the kids certainly didn't go hungry. They also had a great time experimenting with the chopsticks.

Fish is clearly a specialty at Matuba, particulary in the form of sushi -- thin strips of raw fish wrapped around cakes of rice -- and sushimi, which is raw fish with a sauce. Both dishes can be ordered either as appetizer or entree.

We started with sushimi, $3.50. The wedges of raw sea trout, strips of raw salmon and a mound of shredded raw onions were served with a tasty but very hot wasabi horseradish, which the waitress sensibly recommended be diluted with soy sauce. The fish was fresh and beautifully prepared. Of the two, we preferred the orange-pinksalmon, which was nicely textured, just salty enough and cut in manageable slices.

Soup came next. The soybean broth was only so-so, but the remarkably full-flavored clear chicken soup, with its tiny pieces of mushrooms and chicken, was superb. Before we finished the soup, our entrees had arrived.

The five of us reached no consensus on which dish was the best, but certainly there were no losers.

Matuba's kitchen does teriyaki very well indeed. We tried two kinds -- steak, $7.95, and chicken, $6.75. In both, small pieces of meat had been marinated to tenderness, then grilled and served, braised flavor intact, in a slightly sweet sauce.

Tempura can be wonderful if it is light and served piping hot. Matuba scored on both counts. The pieces of chicken and fish, large shrimp and thin slices of vegetables were dipped in egg batter and fried to a pale-yellow color.The one omission was sufficient seasoning, which was not really a problem for diners who like the dunk their tempura in soy sauce.

Another dish new to us was tonkatsu, $6.75. This was a large pork cutlet, breaded and deep-fried and served sliced in seven or eight wedges. Crunchy and tender, it would be a good choice for diners who like meat unadorned by gravies, although a rich, sweet sauce is served on the side.

Big bowls of sticky white rice, salty and stiff Japanese pickles and salad rounded out the meal. The salad was lifted out of the ordinary by curls of marinated cucumber, lemon slices and a nice lemon-oil dressing.

For those who don't want an entire dinner, the menu lists a number of a la carte sections, among them chicken and egg on rice for $4.50 and the intriguing maki, $4, which is described as black mushrooms, egg, winter melon and rice rolled with seaweed.

Dessert on the evening we were there was limited to vanilla ice cream, $1. Beverages include plum wine, $1.75, sake, $2, and Japanese beer, $1.75.

The tab for the five of us, including tax and tip, came to $45.62.