Hours: Vary with location. Family special on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at all locations.

Atmosphere: Neo-Victorian pub, chain-style.

Prices: Entrees, $6.99 to $15.99; kids 12 and under eat for 5 cents on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. when accompanied by an adult ordering dinner.

Reservations: Not required.

Credit cards: All major credit cards.

Special facilities: Booster and high chairs; wheelchair access at some branches.

If luck is with you, Beefsteak Charlie's between 1 and 4 on Sunday afternoons is one of the best family dining buys in town.

During those hours, all children 12 and under who are accompanied by an adult ordering dinner may eat for 5 cents, choosing either a Charlieburger on a seeded bun or broiled or barbecued chicken. Plus they get all the cold shrimp and salad they can eat, unlimited soft drinks and ice cream or sherbet.

I stopped in at the Bethesda branch one cold Sunday with my daughter and her friend, a fellow shrimp fanatic. Exercising no restraint whatever, we polished off seven heaping plates of "shrimp cocktail" from the salad bar, three salads, two orders of barbecued chicken, one sirloin steak Mediterranean with garlic sauce, three pitchers of soft drink, one baked potato, two orders of potato chips, and two dishes of ice cream--for a grand total of $12.49 (plus a $3 tip). And I turned down the free beer (Schaeffer's) and wine (Franzia) that come with each adult dinner, which would have made it even more of a bargain.

The 5-cent deal for kids on Sunday afternoon, which has been in effect since September, can be cancelled at a moment's notice. The menu reads, "The offer may be changed or discontinued at any time, so be sure to verify that the offer is good before setting out from the house."

The deal is the same no matter how many kids you bring (one group brought a Scout troop, another an orphanage, but too much of that strategy may cause a change of policy). The chain makes money on the family deal because most kids don't like shrimp and don't eat much, and Sunday afternoons generally are slow anyway.

Was the food good? Yes and no.

The shrimp were smallish but tasty; the sirloin steak was a third-rate cut of meat, but the garlic sauce was good, and at those prices one can overlook gristle; the small portion of barbecued chicken was acceptable; the salad bar was pretty good, except for special items like cherry tomatoes being so far back that you have to be either 6 feet tall or an acrobat to get at them.

Thrilled with our discovery, we lined up a special birthday outing for two Sundays later, for three grownups and four children, at the K Street branch. What a disaster!

First, two of the children hate shrimp, and my daughter, possibly influenced by group "yucks," rejected her shrimp because of the "black stuff"--the shrimp were not deveined.

The salads were okay, but again, the higher-priced veggies were so far back the children couldn't reach them. Reactions on the four hamburgers ranged from "great but too small" to "horrible, all burnt and dried out." Unlimited sodas were again the high point of the meal.

The adult orders were universally disappointing: A small portion of boneless breast of chicken teriyaki ($8.69), which our guest described as "rubber teriyaki"; an order of six fair-to-middling ribs and two baked stuffed clams filled with a cool, gluey bread-crumb concoction ($9.95); a similar stuffing that detracted from an otherwise fresh piece of flounder, the catch of the day ($11).

The fresh vegetable of the day, described by an especially friendly waiter as delicious, was not only a surprising $1.50 per order (we had assumed it came with the meal) but was cold, congealed and inedible. About the only thing that kept our spirits up in the dimly lit and nearly empty K Street dining room (the suburban branch had been full and lively) was the presence of Pac Man and other games in the lounge, which distracted the children and allowed the rest of us to chat. Dinner for three adults and four children came to $41.98, tip but not Pac Man included, and seemed like no bargain at all.

Still, while it lasts, the Sunday afternoon deal is probably worth checking out--if your group contains a high proportion of shrimp cocktail fanatics, if you like salad bars, if your kids will be happy with hamburger or chicken, if you can handle the apparently universal appeal of unlimited quantities of soda, and if at these prices you expect an emphasis on quantity rather than quality.