A department store is not the first place i think of when I think of eating lunch downtown. Even with the kids in tow, thoughts turn to more interesting, unusual settings.

But there we were going about the inevitable business of outfitting two growing children for the coming school year. And there we were at Woodward and Lothrop, trying on jeans, shoes, sweaters and jackets, when hunger struck.

Why not take the path of least resistance and run up to the seventh floor (behind lamps) for lunch?

All this is by way of saying we weren't expecting or even looking for much: just a place to rest and recuperate from the emotional trials and economic tribulations of buying new clothes. What we got were several surprises.

First, the pleasant surprises. The Saratoga Buffet Company and adjoining tea rooms take up a large section of the seventh floor. The dedication of that much space to feeding the public suggests that Woodie's is serious about its restaurant facilities.

The salad bar that runs the length of the Saratoga room's entryway is further proof of such dedication. It is one of the most attractive, generously laden salad bars I've seen in the city.

Hugh bowls of crisp lettuces and dark, soft spinach are accompanied by smaller bowls of various fresh and marinated vegetables. The day we were there, there was some incredibly mellow fresh cauliflower, wonderfully crisp broccoli, bean salad, cherry tomatoes, cottage cheese, mushrooms, chinese noodles, chopped eggs, croutons, bacon bits and chickpeas.

For those who prefer a fruit salad, there were chunks of honeydew melon and watermelon, and vats of apple butter. The price was $2.95 for as many refills as you could manage, plus a roll and butter. According to the menu, the roll is a seven-grain extravaganza. We found it far inferior to the salad fixings.

The menu offered a small but varied selection of items for those who didn't want to fill up on salad. For $3.25 there was the inevitable, child-pleasing hamburger with tomato, onion and fries, a chicken pot pie to $3.25, quiche for $3.50, crabcakes for $4.95 and a dish called chicken metro for $3.25.

We tried the chicken metro, a boneless chicken breast that had been marinated in pineapple juice and soy sauce and then broiled. We found the seasoning delightful -- lightly sweet without being cloying.

The chicken, however, had been slightly overcooked and was on the dry side. The dish came with a rice pilaf and slice of cucumber.

Another pleasant surprise at Woodies was the dinner menu. It's available only on Monday and the prices are the same as at lunchtime. (The adjoining tearoom serves dinner on Thursday.) In addition to the lunch entrees, the dinner menu adds Maryland fried chicken, $3.75, which promises to come with hot biscuits and strawberry jelly.

There were a few drawbacks to our lunch at Woodies. One was the long line to get into the Saratoga room at 12:30 on a weekday. Woodies is one of the few restaurants left in that part of town. Redevelopment along Pennsylvania Avenue has created a shortage of inexpensive but pleasant places for lunch.

Our major complaint, however, had to do with service. Our order was taken promptly but our food was slow in arriving, with the exception of the salad bar, which we could start as soon as the waitress brought us a platter.

Getting the check took 20 minutes. We couldn't find our waitress, so asked another waitress to let our waitress know we wanted the check. She wouldn't do it. Our waitress finally showed up with the check, which for three came to $9.85, including tax.

Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, Monday, 5 to 7 p.m.; Sunday brunch, noon to 3 p.m. Atmosphere: Ersatz Williamsburg. Price range: Lunch and dinner, $2.95 to $4.95; champagne brunch, $8.50 with special children's price of 8 cents per pound of child's weight. Reservations: No. Credit cards: Woodward and Lothrop, Visa, Mastercard, American Express. cSpecial facilities: Not accessible to the physically handicapped; booster seats and high chairs; parking in pay lot; Metro shop in basement.