Atmosphere: Under the Big Top.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Price range: $1.95 for a hot dog to $6.50 for rib steak.

Credit cards: American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Diner's Club, Carte Blanche.

Reservations: Not necessary.

Special facilities: Parking in lots adjacent to restaurant; from parking lot, two flights of stairs make Barnum's inaccessible to wheelchairs, but if you enter from Belcrest Road, three steps lead to a concrete ramp that takes you to the second level, where Barnum's is located. Booster seats, but no highchairs.

The trapeze doesn't fly at P.G. Barnum's, but the atmosphere is still unmistakably "circus" in this recently opened restaurant across from Prince George's Plaza.

The large lighted roadside sign that simply says "Barnum's -- cocktails -- banquets" might lead you to expect a completely adult-oriented, formal sort of place, but Barnum's is a family restaurant if ever there was one.

The foyer is decorated like a box office, and there is every other imaginable circus trapping in the dining room, from a popcorn machine to stuffed furry monkeys dangling from the tented ceiling. Kids will love the mirrors and parents will find prices low enough to make the outing fun for them too.

The menu, an oversized ticket of admission to the Big Top, offers California-style choices: soups, quiche, salads, omelets and a list of entrees with Italian, Mexican and American highlights.

A restaurant that offers so much variety can be long on gimmicks and short on quality, but we found the food good, well-prepared and, best of all, a good buy. Hamburgers, most sandwiches and omelets (all served with french fries) are available for under $3, some for as little as $2.25.

While popcorn is not my idea of the perfect appetizer, it certainly is appropriate in this setting, and our waiter began our evening by giving us two baskets of it.

Although tempting sandwiches were available and several nice combinations (soup and salad, soup and quiche, soup and either whole or half a sandwich), the girls wanted dinner food. They ordered fried shrimp ($5.95), fried chicken ($3.95), and a Mexican combination plate made up of a taco, a burrito and refried beans ($4.25).

Lasagne, chopped steak and a catch of the day are offered at similar prices. My husband decided to try "the flying Calzone," an overstuffed Italian sandwich ($3.25). And I, expecting the worst, ordered a 10-ounce New York strip steak for the incredible price of $5.99.

Dinners come with fair-to-middling cottage fries, salad or vegetable. Our waiter brought us salads of mixed greens and cherry tomatoes with adequate salad dressings. But it was the main courses that pleasantly surprised us. The shrimp platter came with eight large shrimp fried to a golden brown and the fried chicken had been freshly prepared: it was moist and tender under a crispy, well-seasoned coating.

The Calzone was delicious, delightfully different and big enough to fill a dinner plate. This Italian turnover consisted of a well-made pizza dough wrapped around Italian sausage, onions and green peppers and covered with a flavorful tomato sauce.

My steak was cooked as I had asked, medium rare; every bite was juicy and tender. It made me think that the eight-ounce Delmonico ($3.99) and the steak sandwich ($2.99) also were probably worth trying. Only the Mexican dishes seemed mediocre: they were overseasoned with Tabasco sauce.

Our daughters thought that a circus-like restaurant ought to have cotton candy for dessert. Though there was no pink fluff available, Barnum's is no slouch in the dessert department. The girls made do with a wonderfully rich chocolate mousse pie ($1.50) that truly tasted homemade. Equally good was apple crisp a la mode ($1.50): warm and filled with cinnamon and raisins. Parfaits, homemade carrot cake and sour cream cake also are offered.

One detail would improve the atmosphere at Barnum's: noise from the bar on the other side of the entrance should be sealed off. It is not a large problem, however, in a restaurant where families will find the food good and the setting and the price right.

Our dinner for five, including drinks, tax and tip, came to $40.80, but other families might easily sample less widely and spend less.