Atmosphere: Shopping centerish.

Hours: Variable. Roughly 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch, 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. for dinner.

Price range: $1.95 to $2.75 for entrees. Half price for children 10 and under.

Credit cards: Cash or checks only.

Reservations: No.

Special facilities: Ample parking; booster chairs and high chairs; wheelchair access easier in some cafeterias than others.

One of the best deals in family dining these days can be found at Hot Shoppes cafeterias. For about a year, these cafeterias have offered, children 10 and under a full-portion entree and one vegetable at half price. Since entrees cost roughly $1.95 to $2.75, and vegetables from 49 cents to 65 cents, a family of four can eat well for about $15.

Coffee and sodas are 45 cents and unlimited refills on both are free.

And you don'tr feel apologetic walking in with all the children. This is Kid Country. More than one younster walked up to our table to eye either our food or our daughters; one child came over to ask if we knew where his mother was.

The counter staff, while not always top candidates for the friendliness award, had no trouble at all dealing with children returning solo for seconds. The children, of course, not only like the chance for independence but the inevitably relaxed censorship of their choices.

Freedom of choice, and the idea that what you see is what you get, is what makes cafeterias appealing even to adults. Where cafeterias fail, generally, is in the execution: What you see doesn't necessarily taste as good as it looks or doesn't always look so good, either, when you get it up close. In this regard, Hot Shoppes is probably slightly above average in its class.

Some dishes were surprisingly good -- the vegetables, for example, were rarely overcooked.

Other dishes seem best suited for barracks or camp dining -- scalloped potatoes and ham was ghastly to the point of being inedible. Except that it came in a generous portion, the chipped beef on toast reminded me very much of Camp Wakonda -- an observation I should have kept to mayself, since I doubt I shall ever convince the girls to go to camp now.

The food at all of the cafeterias is prepared at one central commissary but the finishing touches, such as grilling, are done at the individual cafeterias. Knowing this, we found it difficult to understand why some cafeterias were noticeably better than the others. Ambience may be an important factor.

Both the food and the atmosphere at the Tysons' Corner branch were perkier than what was found at the Montgomery Mall cafeteria, partly because the food seemed to have been cooked both a shorter time and more recently.

At Tysons', the liver and onions ($1.99) were surprisingly edible, the roast beef closer to both meat texture and "asu jus" quality, the chicken and veal more filling than thrilling but a pretty good investment (especially at half price for the children). Granted, this was the branch where we experienced the scalloped ham and potatoes, but we found all the other vegetables, across the board, well prepared, though plain.

Tysons' is one of three local Hot Shoppes with a Garden Potpourri counter -- a separately managed section that caters to customers with a taste for natural foods by serving vegetable-oriented dishes like Monterey Jack Bake ($2.70), sproutish sandwiches, good vegetable soups and salads.

Desserts are the same at all the cafeterias: pecan pie leans closer to Karo syrup than to pecans, the cinnamony apple pie is a hit with the kinds, the bring red strawberry pie is generously endowed with strawberries and red goo that pleased the less discriminating palates at our table. The orange cake was blah. We learned very quickly to save ourselves for the frozen yogurt and fruit, which you can get if the cafeteria has a Potpourri counter, and if that counter is open. (The cafeterias seem to keep longer hours than the health food section.)

I wouldn't give Hot Shoppes any prizes for fine cooking, but it's surprisingly adequate as a drop-in dining room for hungry families with those shopping center blues. And if the management maintains its half-price policy for children, it's also a haven for wounded wallets.