Atmosphere: Decor overdone; friendly management.

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

Price range: Entrees, $7 to $17.

Reservations: Good idea on weedends.

Credit cards: American Express, Carte Blanche, Diners, MasterCard, VISA.

Special facilities: Plenty of parking on lot. Accessible to handicapped.

According to a recent analysis in the New York Times, the high cost of grain to feed cattle plus concern over cholesterol will shortly relegate meals featuring steak and other prime cuts of beef to the history books.

Beef already is served infrequently at my family's dinner table, in contrast to a dozen years ago when standing rib sold for 79 a pound. Then we frequently stocked up on rib steaks and threw them on the grill often, as we do chicken and fish today.

Still, we feel an occasional craving for a solid hunk of good quality, well-marbled, thick juicy meat: prime rib, to be exact.

Since Washington's best quality beef houses are located downtown and require expense accounts to pay the bill, we have opted several times for a nearer, less pricey alternative: the Golden Bull in Gaithersburg.

Recently, we went there to try other dishes from its extensive beef and seafood menu. Better not to have tried them. We found that the Golden Bull is for prime rib, strictly.

The restaurant is housed in a large, windowless building flanked by two parking lots, just off route 355. You enter through large arched baroque doors into a dark red and black cavern-like interior, vaguely Spanish in atmosphere.

There's an air of exaggeration about the place: ceilings are too high, the grill work is too prominent, rooms are too big, ceilings are too black, walls and rugs too red.

The exaggeration is reflected in the menu. The bread was "specially baked," the cheese "special goument," the dressing for potatoes, "our special sour cream and chive dressing."

As an appetizer, we tried the "real specialty of the house served in our own inimitable style" -- the onion soup, "a delectable recipe from Normandy."

The soup bore no resemblance to genuine French onion soup. It was a light blond mild broth with chopped onions in it (in contrast to a dark winey authentic onion soup), topped with a slice of soggy bread and a half-inch thick blanket of bubbling mozzarella. Aside from the fact that a Frenchman would sooner top onion soup with frogs' legs than mozzarella -- gruyere, swiss or parmesan are required -- it required a knife and fork to get the hot stringy mozzarella under control.

The house salad, "a bonanza" says the menu, was adequate, though the "homemade dressing" tasted distinctly as if it had come from a bottle.

Once again the prime rib ($11.75) was fine: well trimmed of fat, hefty in size, juicy and tasty, though a bit sinewy. Perhaps this is not the best cut of prime available on the market, but the price is not the highest either.

Other beef dishes were disappointing, especially the "filet mignon kabob provencale," too tough and sinewy to be filet, which should cut with a fork and melt in your mouth with tenderness, requiring none of the prominent vinegar marinade we tasted on the meat. The dish might have been adequate, though, had not the whole platter of meat, peppers, onions, mushrooms and mushy tomatoes been blanketed with a thick pink sauce of indeterminate flavor that I for one have never seen served on shish kabob. The menu claims this is "an authentic recipe."

The maitre d' had recommended lobster when he led us to our table. Turned out he meant broiled lobster tail, $13.50. Ours was very small and not worth the price, though servings we noticed at other tables around the room looked larger.

Other seafood dishes (more than a dozen in all), include fried shrimp, imperial crab and crab cakes, red snapper, scallops and oysters. None, however, is fresh. All seafood at the Golden Bull is fresh frozen, which reduces sweetness and changes texture in seafood.

For our children, we decided to get away from the standard children's platters, which are $3.95 and offer a choice of hamburger, crab cakes, fried chicken or flounder with potatoe and salad. Instead, we treated our children to one order of prime rib for the two of them to share. The portion was larger than even they (ages 5 to 10) can finish, the cost was roughly $2 per child more than standard platters. The result is that the kids get to enjoy prime rib along with the adults.

Desserts: the menu's "scrumptious" cheese cake was fine for our four sweet tooths to share. The rum cake had no descernible rum flavor. Ice cream is served with an appealing dollop of whipped topping that children love.

Service at the Golden Bull can be smooth and well-paced, or slow. Management, however, seems willing to help out if necessary. Appeal to the maitre d' or hostess if you are unhappy with service or food and help is likely to be offered.