Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, doors open for drinks and salad bar at 6:15, buffet is served at 6:30, show starts at 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, everything happens an hour earlier. Every second and fourth Sunday there is a matinee brunch, for which doors open at 11 a.m. and the show starts at 1. Closed Mondays.

Atmosphere: Modern, spacious, friendly.

Prices: Sunday through Thursday, $15.95 for dinner and show; Friday, $17.95; Saturday, $19.50 for dinner, show and after-show cabaret. Sunday brunch, $14.95. Children 12 and under $10.95, except Saturdays. Senior citizens, 20 percent discount Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Groups rate available.

Reservations: Required, with seating on first-reserved basis -- the earlier the reservation, the better the seats. (Ideally, book two weeks in advance.)

Credit cards: American Express, Diners Club, Mastercard, Visa.

Special facilities: Ample parking; wheelchair access but with curb in front and no special bathroom facilities; no booster seats or high-chairs (children 4 and under are discouraged); nonsmoking sections.

Note: "West Side Story" will run through Oct. 18; "Fiddler on the Roof" is booked for Oct. 21 through Feb. 7. By PAT McNEES Special to The Washington Post

I used to sneer at the concept of dinner theaters, described by one local theater manager as "nightclubs for Middle America," but we have enjoyed few evenings out more than we did a recent evening of dinner-and-a-show at Toby's in Columbia.

Toby's opened in 1979 in a spacious new building designed specifically for dinner-theater-in-the-round (nobody sits behind a pole, tables are not crowded together, and sight lines are very good). Judging from the lively production we saw of "West Side Story," owner-director Toby Orenstein's productions have developed flair and polish.

The cast, which doubles as waiters, is not uniformly of professional caliber, but Gay Willis was excellent as Maria and most of the performers did a decent job. The songs and dancing (music is provided by a live band cleverly playing from above the audience) were simply a joy to our stage-struck daughters, particularly when the male dancers placed a police officer's cap on one daughter's head and sang part of "Officer Krupke" at her feet -- an audience participation number that involved a few other members of the audience, too.

Generally, the food at Toby's avoids being either folksy and sweet (dinner theater food is often heavy on marshmallows) or pretentious (there are no ice or food sculptures).

The buffet is presented in the area that later becomes center stage, and is whisked away without fanfare before the show starts. Food service is well-organized, so you don't wait forever for your turn in line at the buffet. While waiting, you can help yourself to salad from a well-stocked salad bar, lacking only a variety of greens.

Food, prepared by a chef who started at Toby's in June, is better than average, partly because it is kept simple. After eating large salads (which even the girls, who aren't always into greens, ate with gusto), we helped ourselves to cole slaw, carrot salad, fresh melon, and cubes of cheddar and Swiss cheese. We also had firm boiled potatoes, indifferent green beans, slightly mushy broccoli au gratin, so-so baked ziti, a simple but blessedly not overbaked fish, small spicy shrimp, nicely al dente rice pilaf, a moist chicken in tomato sauce (more popular with our children than with us, but not bad), and good rare roast beef.

After we had helped ourselves to seconds (and in one case, thirds), we made our way to the dessert buffet in the lobby, which offered an inadequate cheesecake, a sticky-sweet apple crisp, and a pleasant sherbet. The waiters brought coffee around frequently, and you could help yourself to more at intermission.

The food poses no threat to the finer restaurants in town, but when you consider how much you get of some fairly expensive dishes, it's incredible that the price of the ticket includes not only the food but the show, too. And with children 12 and under eating for just $10.95 at all times except Saturdays, Toby's is particularly attractive for families, especially those with hungry musical buffs who like food served cafeteria-style.

The basic ticket price (covering the show and the meal) for the four of us, including two 10-year-olds, was $63.80 with tax. Our drinks and bar bill was $7.95, which made the total for the evening $71.75 plus the tip.

And here we blush. Although many people tip only on the bar bill, the staff, which is paid minimum wage, counts on people tipping on the total bill -- ticket price plus bar bill. With the tip we should have left, instead of the tip we skimped on and felt bad about afterward, our evening could have cost a little over $80.

For dinner out, $80 is fairly expensive; for an evening in the theater, it's all-too-typical (for seats as good as we had); for a combination of the two, it's extremely good value.