Atmosphere: Hotel lobby.

Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Price range: $3.95 to $9.50; chef's dinner, $12.

Reservations: Yes.

Credit cards: American Express, Visa, MasterCard.

Special facilities: Accessible to the physically handicapped; valet parking; booster seats and highchairs.

A neighborhood Chinese restaurant is, by definition, a reliable standby, the kind of place you can run to whenever the family is too tired, too busy or otherwise too occupied to cook at home. Ideally, a neighborhood Chinese restaurant is fast, efficient, inexpensive and also delicious.

We've found them, but always in someone else's neighborhood. At last, we've found one in our own. To make sure it was the real thing, we gave it the time test: three visits in as many months.

Imperial Palace, the latest Chinese restaurant to land in the lobby of an apartment house on Willard Avenue, was superb twice and merely very good once. The two superb times were Saturday nights when we went there with friends. The very good time was a weekday visit with our children.

On our Saturday night visits with friends, we had been dazzled by the gorgeous dishes we saw pouring out of the kitchen. The cutting, cooking and styling of the food was obviously as important as taste.

Rather than ask our waiter for advice, we tried the $9.95 chef's special dinner. Appetizers, soup and entrees are chosen by the chef based on what the chef considers his best dishes of the day. That's how we were introduced to paper-wrapped bean curd roll, wintermelon soup, honey duck, four treasure in taro nest, beef with scallions, chicken with black bean sauce and other delights.

When we returned with our children, the chef's dinner had been upped to $12. That priced it way out of our family budget reach. Leaving the choice of dishes up to the chef would not have been a terrific idea, anyway. Our children, like most, have too many food dislikes for an adventure like that. Besides, our son is a vegetarian and we doubted the chef would consider a meatless, fishless dish a special.

Past experience, however, steered us to the paper-wrapped bean curd rolls, $1.50, for him. Paper thin, phyllo-like dough, wrapped around delicately seasoned bean curd, had been deep fried to a crisp. Unfortunately, the $1.50 price tag netted him only one roll.

The rest of us started off with egg rolls, $1.80 (two rolls), and spareribs, $3.75 (four ribs). The spareribs were the least greasy, most crisp, best seasoned ribs we could remember having. The egg rolls weren't bad, either.

We moved on to another family standby: wonton soup, $1.25, which featured delicate scallions floating in a broth that had real flavor. The wonton dough had a silky texture and was stuffed with chunks of pork. It couldn't have been better.

Based on our previous excursions we insisted our children trust us to order the main courses. Instead of the old family favorites we chose two of the four dishes that had delighted us on previous occasions: four treasure in taro nest, $8.95, and honey duck, $7.50.

For our third dish we let our vegetarian pick something he could eat. He chose bean curd with lo hon vegetables, $6.25. Lo hon vegetables turned out to be peas, carrots, bean sprouts, broccoli, and black and white mushrooms. It wasn't anything terribly special.

The two dishes that had so delighted us at other times were good, but not up to the standard of our previous outings.

Four treasure in taro nest is shrimp, chicken, scallops and vegetables (the treasures) piled into a nest of julienned potatoes that have been woven into a nest and deep fried. Even when it slightly misses the mark, it's a sensational dish.

The nest comes on an oval platter covered with lettuce, pineapple and sliced tomato. Once you break the nest to help yourself, the treasures spill out -- moist and tender chunks of chicken and scallops, whole shrimp, nicely sized bits of broccoli, mushroom, water chestnuts and the like. This time around the treasures were tender and delicate but the sauce was a bit bland.

The honey duck features chunks of duck with skin. The pieces are coated with a crunchy, almost nutty batter and cooked until the crispness of the batter and the crispness of the skin are one. The dish is then served in a slightly sweet sauce that does wonders for duck.

Dinner at Imperial Palace ends with not only the rather ordinary fortune cookies, but with delightful almond cookies as well.

Food alone does not make a neighborhood restaurant special. The service has to keep things moving along. Family dinners out at neighborhood Chinese restaurants are not supposed to be prolonged, lengthy affairs. Imperial Palace managed to provide efficient service with constantly replenished water glasses and two refills of tea, all without being asked.

Our dinner for two children and two adults came to $33.71, including tax.