Atmosphere: Shopping centerish.

Hours: Vary from location to location but approximately 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch, 4:30 to 8 p.m. for dinner.

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

Credit cards: None but personal checks accepted.

Reservations: No.

Special facilities: Ample parking; booster chairs and high chairs; wheel chair access easier in some cafeterias then others.

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

Coffee and sodas are 45 cents and unlimited refills on both are free -- a mixed blessing if there ever was one. Knowing my inability to pass up a bargain, our kids see this as a rare opportunity for a sugar high.

And you don't feel apologetic walking in with all the children. This is Kid Country. More than one youngster 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 was not always friendly but had no trouble dealing with children returning solo for seconds. The children, of course, liked not only this chance at independence but also the inevitably relaxed censorship of their food choices.

Freedom of choice -- and the idea that what you see is what you get, instantly -- 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, and 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, but no particular threat to restaurants with table service.

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

Other dishes seem best suited for barracks or camp dining -- scalloped potatoes and ham was ghastly to the point of inedibility. Except for the generous portion served, the chipped beef on toast reminded me very much of what you might get at summer camp.

The food served at all the cafeterias is prepared by a central kitchen but grilled or otherwise finished at each individual cafeteria. Knowing this, we found it difficult to understand why the food at some cafeterias was noticeably better than at others. Ambience may be an important factor.

The Wheaton Plaza branch is head and shoulders above the other two we tried -- Montgomery Mall and Tyson's Corner. Windows on three sides make the Wheaton Plaza cafeteria light and airy, and it has tasteful furniture in light wood, lots of real plants and a minimum of the kitschy neo-Bavarian or Pennsylvania Dutch (we couldn't decide which) artwork featured at the other two.

The cafeteria food may have been only slightly better than at the other two branches but somehow it tasted better in this setting.

Also, Wheaton's 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 such as Monterrey Jack Bake ($2.70), sandwiches, good vegetable soups and salads.

However, our meal one Sunday evening at the Montgomery Mall branch, which also has a Garden Potpourri section, was an enormous letdown after Wheaton. The dreariness of the cafteria itself seemed to have filtered down to the food, which included a leathery, dry slice of top round of beef "au jus" ($2.60) even a hungry raccoon would have left behind.

The only good food in our Montgomery Mall meal was provided by the Potpourri counter, especially a crisp garden salad with a fine yogurt dressing ($2.10 for a large portion) and a bowl for frozen yogurt topped with fresh strawberries ($1.05).

Desserts are the same at all the cafeterias: orange cake is blah and pecan pie leans closer to Karo syrup than to pecans, but the cinnamon-flavored apple pie was a hit with the kids and the bright red strawberry pie generously endowed with strawberries and red goo also pleased the less discriminating palates at our table. We learned 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 the Hot Shoppes cafeterias a prize for fine cooking, but they are more than adequate as drop-in dining rooms for hungry families with those shopping center blues. If the management maintains its half-price policy for children, the cafeterias also offer real bargains.