Atmosphere: Down-home.

Hours: Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. for breakfast; 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch; 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. for dinner. Closed Sunday.

Price range: 45 cents for soup to $2.75 for steak or fish.

Reservations: None.

Credit Cards: Cash only.

Special facilities: Wheelchair access; booster chairs; street parking, easier near the New Sholl's (parking restrictions relax at 6:30 p.m.); convenient to several Metro stops.

Reviewing a dining institution like Sholl's is a little like reviewing your grandfather: try as you might to be objective, what it all boils down to is whether he's lovable. And unlike most institutions, Sholl's is definitely lovable.

Where else can you buy a cup of coffee for 25 cents, a cup of tea for 10 cents and an egg for 20 cents?

Located in the Esplanade, the Colonial is the spiffier of the two establishments, and the food there may be a fraction tastier (although both restaurants use the same menu and recipes). The New Sholl's has a faded, lime-green plastic atmosphere, but that's part of its charm.

The food at Sholl's looks and tastes like real food, as if it had been bought recently and prepared by a real person in a nearby kitchen. Tips and strings remain on green beans, for example, and the pies definitely taste homemade.

Nothing fancy here -- just plain food, simply prepared. The selection is surprisingly eclectic; you find herring next to hard-boiled eggs, for example, and bagels next to dinner rolls and blueberry muffins. The emphasis is clearly on nutritious food at ultrareasonable prices.

Sholl's starts its food line with an assortment of fruit juices (30 cents a glass). The ample selection of bargains that follows includes slices eggs and tomatoes, 35 cents; grated carrots, 20 cents; cottage cheese, 50 cents; cooked prunes, 20 cents; noodle soup, 45 cents; liver, 95 cents (15 cents extra for onions); roast beef, $1.45; corned beef and cabbage (a small portion), $1.45.

You can also get fried chicken (a little dry one night), $1.35; ground steak, $1.25; steak (a cheap cut), $2.75; fish (definitely not their strong point), $1.95 to $2.75; vegetables, 40 cents to 65 cents; rolls and muffins, 10 cents to 25 cents; cake, 25 cents and up; pies, 40 cents to 95 cents.

Is it any wonder that the lines that form each night are full of regulars? (Don't be put off by the lines; they move along quickly.)

The food is not as delicious as the prices are low. Portions are generous and most dishes are adequate, but some of what we ate suffered from overcooking, although the staff clearly makes an effort to avoid that steam-table taste by cooking vegetables in small batches.

Quality is inconsistent, too. Some of the fresh fruit pies were so good that a couple of us had seconds, but apple pie, excellent one night at the Colonial, was cold and unpalatable a week later at the New Sholl's. Green salad was dreary, but the cole slaw was crisp, with a snappy dressing. Eggplant was interesting one night, but the green beans were overcooked.

I say all this so you won't go expecting paradise, but I can't tell you how guilty I feel criticizing the green beans at a place with as much friendly integrity as Sholl's.

I was happy for our children to experience the sense of community among Sholl's patrons, the easy mingling of the generations, the easy friendships that cross tax brackets. Even singles seem friendlier at Sholl's -- less defensive about being alone and more likely to share a table and a conversation without feeling nervous about it.

But Sholl's is full of groups -- here a table of old-timers who have shared many a meal and political argument; there a table of young professionals discussing the day's events and the evening's prospects; here two secretaries trying to stretch a dollar; there a group of teen-agers wolfing down the specials and then some.

Busloads of tourists are regularly dropped off at Sholl's, but the New Sholl's regulars who struck up a conversation with us one evening pointing out that about 80 percent of the people in the room ate there every night, some of them driving in from places like McLean, Va., to do so. (They arrive promptly at 6:30, when the parking restrictions are relaxed, so they can park right by the cafeteria.)

The regulars say they come for the food, which they find delicious. I think they come for each other, and for what must surely by the best food buy in town.