Atmosphere: Clubby and charming -- a special-occasion place.

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday; 5:30 to 11 p.m. Saturday; 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. (brunch) and 3 to 9 p.m. (dinner) Sunday.

Price range: $5.45 to $14.45.

Reservations: A good idea on weekends, particularly for parties of more than four.

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

Special facilities: Easy parking in restaurant lot; accessible to handicapped; boosters available but no highchairs.

Years ago, a friend of mine simplified her Christmas shopping. Each child got one present, large or small, as the budget allowed, to open on Christmas morning. Then, on a special holiday evening, the whole family dressed up, went to a show together and had a festive dinner in a nicer-than-usual restaurant.

Certainly there's no better time of year for a celebratory dinner, and The Rafters, near Landmark Shopping Center in Alexandria, is a good place to indulge in one.Part of a chain of restaurants owned by Pillsbury, Rafters is a sister establishment to Steak 'N Ale and operates under the chain formula for success: Offer ample portions of well-prepared, standard American fare in a nicely decorated setting at medium prices.

At first sight, we would not have identified The Rafters as a place for a family night out. It is a large, so-phisticated-looking place with an imposing neon sign you can see from the highway. Furthermore, it looks expensive.

The Rafters offers a children's menu, however, and a free birthday dinner to children under 12 who are accompanied by their parents. We had been advised that The Rafters offers good value for the money you spend there, and at the end of our meal, we had to agree.

Part of what you get at The Rafters is ambiance. This large restaurant is divided into several cozy dinning rooms where hurricane lamps throw soft light onto walls hung with musical instruments and antique photographs of Victorian families. Stained glass and brass ceiling fans are an added touch.

The menu is simple, offering various combinations of beef, chicken, seafood and quiche. Although steak and seafood are not cheap entrees these days, The Rafters' prices are competitive with other local steak chains and you get a complete dinner for the price.

You are first served a cup of homemade soup -- a tasty beef and noodle the night we were there -- and a basket of hot loaves of crusty bread. Next comes a large salad, either crisp spinach or tossed greens, cucumbers and tomatoes. Both are generously garnished with croutons, mushrooms, hardcooked eggs, sweet onion and decent dressings. We thoroughly enjoyed them.

For entrees, we deliberately stuck to the lower-priced items on the menu, but still were able to sample The Rafters' range of dinners. Our 10-year-old daughters ordered, from the children's menu, Hawaiian chicken with rice pilaf, and quiche (each $4.95).

The chicken breast was marinated in a mediocre sauce but was tenderly cooked.It was quite fine, if not unusual. The large slice of quiche was well-prepared and well-seasoned. Both dishes were more than enough for our growing girls' appetites.

We also sampled smothered chicken and smothered steak (each $7.95).In each case, the entree was covered with sauteed mushrooms and onions and topped with melted provolone cheese. Both were quite tasty, although the meats themselves had quality enough to stand on their own.

Our teen-aged daughter, the purist, had one of the best dishes, a simple steak and bake: a small, wellgrilled sirloin with a lavishly garnished baked potato ($7.95).

Another fine dish was stuffed flounder ($7.95), filled with a delicious mixture of crab, shrimp and cheese.

The distinctive dessert at The Rafters, and the best way to end a party dinner, is the chocolate silk pie ($2.25), a dark, sweet mousse in a chocolate crumb crust, which our daughters felt rivaled their favorite chocolate concoctions.

A lighter but less interesting dessert was tumbleweed ice cream ($1.95), a French vanilla whipped with Kahlua and other liqueurs. Our party dinner cost us $11 a person, tax and tip included; not cheap, but we thought it a good buy.