The American love affair with beef continues. Or is it the American love affair with shrimp? Or with free pitchers of beer or wine?

It's probably the combination of all three, which is the approach used to try to beat out the competition by Beefsteak Charlie's, a chain that bought out the old Emerson's some months ago. Apparently it is working, for Charlie's -- at least at the Bethesda location on Old Georgetown Road -- is packing them in, even on weeknights.

One Tuesday evening we decided to try the place our daughters had been nagging us about. Arriving at 7 p.m., we were all hungry, and expected no trouble getting a table on what is ordinarily a slow night. But inside the door stood a line of families, and the hostess told us there would be a 45-minute wait.

Years ago, the restauranteur who started the original steak house chain in Washington told a reporter that he wanted to provide a place where his customers could enjoy steak on the table and a rug on the floor at a reasonable price. Charlie's seems to be after the same thing.

The decor is rustic Victorian pub, the lighting dark, the seats comfortable. Tiffany-style chandeliers provide color and charm.

But is is apparently the sense of something-for-nothing that brings people in. For a fixed price, Beefsteak Charlie's offers its patrons a beef, chicken or seafood entree plus steamed shrimp, salad bar, baked potato, beer, wine or soda.Only dessert and side orders are extra.

Considering the calories it offers per dollar, Charlie's is probably an unbeatable bargain, although its major competitor does a better job of cooking. uBut if you prefer to get a lot of food for the money in a pleasant setting, you will like Charlie's.

The salad bar has the usual ingredients -- all of which seemed fresh -- and dressings better than bottled ones. Bread was served from the plastic wrapper it came in, but nobody cared, because they were waiting to get to the large iced bowl of steamed shrimp that seems to be the drawing card for many. As you might expect, the shrimp are small and therefore sometimes overcooked and chewy -- but you can wash them down with the small pitchers of beer or wine your waiter will bring to your table.

Our younger daughters ordered from the children's menu, which includes soft drinks and ice cream for dessert. They chose barbecued chicken, $1.99, and a child's sirloin steak, $4.99. Our older daughter and I both ordered top sirloin steak, $9.79, and my husband asked for the Tuesday night special: barbecued baby back ribs, $7.99.

The steaks -- eight ounces in the adult portion -- looked small, but by the time they came we had eaten so much salad and shrimp that we hardly noticed. The meat was tender, although not cut thick enough to be juicy after being grilled. The barbecued ribs and chicken were cooked with a better-than-average sauce that might be a bit highly seasoned for many children, although our family liked it.

The girls got made-on-the-premises orange sherbet for dessert, a good bet after such a heavy meal. Forget the cheesecake, a mediocre bakery variety drowning in soggy frozen strawberry sauce.

If the whole experience was not cordon bleu, the service was good, the environment pleasant, and the price not overwhelming. For five of us, the bill totaled $45.49, tax and tip included.

Atmosphere: Ersatz antique pub. Comfortable. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m to 2:30 p.m. and 4 to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 4 to 10:30 p.m.; Sundary, 4 to 9 p.m. Price range: $6.79 to $14,99. Children's menu, $1.99 to $4.99. Credit cards: American Express, Diner's Club, Mastercard and VISA. Reservations: Not taken. Arrive before 6:30 p.m. for quick seating. Special features: Booster and high chairs available. Monday night special: regular steak dinner, $7.99; Tuesday night special: barbecued ribs, $7.99.