When we arrived at the Little Cafe early one recent evening, Happy Hour was still in full swing and one waiter was trying to serve five tables of early diners. Maybe we had come too early to sample the best in service at this delightful looking restaurant in Arlington, but with young children, early dinners seem to be a must.

So we stayed put and hoped the service would improve. Unfortunately, it didn't.

What a shame, because the atmosphere at The Little Cafe raises your hopes that this will be an elegant and enjoyable family night out.

Tables are topped with fresh flowers and crisp tablecloths. A brick wall is lined with works from local artists, and live plants hang from brightly painted ceiling pipes. As the Happy Hour crowd departed, lights were dimmed and hurricane lanterns on each table were lit.

But the service problem took the edge off our delight with our surroundings.

Perhaps the fault lies with the menu itself -- a booklet that offers an unusually large selection of brunch, luncheon and dinner selections. But the entrees we ordered were not complicated, and hardly worth the hour-long wait.

We began with artichoke hearts, asparagus and olives ($3.25), a platter created for a youngster going through his vegetable period. Unfortunately, this is a high price tag for the canned products The Little Cafe uses.

A cup of gazpacho ($1.50) we ordered lived up to the menu's description as a "first-class, appropriately seasoned salad-soup."

Bread helped to make the waiting time seem shorter. The salad, although a bed of iceberg lettuce, had been carefully separated and was a welcome course as we continued to wait for out entrees. The Cafe vinaigrette dressing was well-seasoned, and a touch of sweetness made it less bitter than one often discovers in such a house dressing.

A positive feature of the restaurant is that entrees include a salad and a vegetable or a potato. But, in keeping with the rest of the service, the waiter never asked us whether we wanted a vegetable or a potato, and we all were served the vegetable of the day, fresh broccoli under a mountain of hollandaise. The broccoli suffered as much as we did from the long wait for our meal, and would have been much better with about 15 minutes less steaming.

Still, there were some bright spots. For instance, our son's French dip sandwich ($4.95) was a testimony to quality. The French bread was piled with thinly sliced beef that was free of grizzle and fat. The cottage fries that filled his palte were thin and crisp and very tasty.

Our daughter's chicken Francaise ($6.95) was a large breast of chicken that had been lightly dipped in a mild lemon butter and then sauteed. Although the chicken was unpounded and thicker than most such portions, it was still moist.

The barbecued spare ribs ($7.95) were an ample portion of meaty, moist back ribs that were spared an overindulgence of sauce. They may be one of the more successful entrees we ordered.

On the other hand, the veal marsala ($9.95) was dominated by a marsala sauce that probably would intoxicate a minor. Ironically, the veal needs sauce and seasoning expertise, for it is not first quality; it is instead rather grizzly and dry.

Despite the long wait for dinner, we were determined to leave with a sweet taste and ordered two deserts for the four of us. The carrot cake ($2) was far superior to the rather dry cheesecake ($2.25).

Our uneven, frustrating experience makes me wonder if the menu should be trimmed to include only the most successful items. Maybe then the prices will be reduced closer to those on the luncheon menu, and the Happy Hour crowd will consider staying for dinner.

For our family, including tax and tip, our random but thorough sampling amounted to $47.71 for a less than a polished production.

Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. with lunch until 2:30 p.m., and dinner beginning at 6 p.m. Sundays, 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. with brunch menu until 3 p.m. Sandwiches available at in-between times. Atmosphere: A neighborhood bar dressed for dinner. Price range: Dinner from $6.50 for sauteed chicken livers to $12.95 for veal oscar. Sandwiches from $3.75 to $5.75. Reservations: Yes. Credit cards: All major. Special features: Parking lot. Entrance accessible to the handicapped. Booster seats available. Saturday, Sunday and Monday night, two-for-one dinner specials.