Hours: 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday; noon to 6 p.m., Sunday. From June 14 until Labor Day, Monday through Saturday hours extended to 7:30 p.m.

Atmosphere: Picture perfect.

Price range: Fast food from under a dollar. Hot buffet from around $2.50. Everything a' la carte.

Credit cards: None.

Reservations: No.

Special features: Accessible to wheelchairs. Highchairs and booster seats. Three-hour Mall parking. Daily specials.

The Mall, like a magnet, draws Washingtonians and visitors alike into its festive grip. Yet feeding the masses has always been a difficult project.

Within the Smithsonian, there are several cafeterias and a special dining facility for associates. And outside there are numerous street vendors. But the broadest range of food choices lies below a cobblestone street amid the nation's art collection.

In that magical underground space that connects the original National Gallery of Art with its newer sister, the East Wing, are two side-by-side restaurants. One is a more structured cafe, with table service and a limited menu. The other is a modern cafeteria called The Buffet.

They share a breathtaking view of a waterfall window that never ceases to fascinate, especially younger family members. Yet The Buffet's abundance of food and price range make it the perfect stop for coffee or a long, lingering lunch.

Do not be alarmed by the length of the line. On all our visits, what has appeared to be an interminable line has moved surprisingly quickly.

Food is divided into stations: fast foods, salads, hot buffet, cold buffet, carvery, desserts and beverages. Each selection is presented with an awareness of detail and an eye for arrangement. Color and design play an important role in the presentation of all foods. After all, you are eating at an art museum!

Using individual stations prevents line buildups. Young children do not seem overwhelmed by choices since they are not faced with a steady stream of food. Because food is divided by category, there is less of a tendency for children mesmerized by cafeteria abundance to over-order.

Of course, the standard cafeteria foods are present: soggy-looking fries, brown gravy, macaroni and swimmingly shimmering gelatin. But the other possibilities make The Buffet an all-time, all-season crowd pleaser.

Your chance to be creative comes at the salad counter. For $1.60 you receive a platter of fresh romaine and iceberg lettuce that you instruct the salad lady to fill according to your taste and caloric limit. Turkey, bacon or tuna are each 60 cents; sprouts, beans, beets and similar toppings are another 30 cents.

For those less artistically inclined, a burger or frankfurter from the fast-food line might make a meal with a bowl of respectable chicken noodle soup (80 cents). Add to that an order of lightly breaded french-fried mushrooms (65 cents) and everyone can sample an appetizer morsel.

Small children are sometimes big cafeteria eaters, as our daughter proved on a recent outing. No fast-food fare for her, but rather, freshly carved thin slices of medium-rare roast beef inside a flaky croissant ($3.10). She had an eye for a winning combination.

The Coney Island clam chowder ($1.25) proved to be a surprising blend of tiny clam morsels and potato pieces.

Whether it is soup, frozen yogurt with fresh strawberries, or a chicken salad platter, there is enough variety of foods to please any palate. Add to that a range of beverages that includes sangria, beer, wine and milkshakes as well as the normal coffee, tea and soft drinks and you've created a restaurant that restores to a family the will to return to any museum for additional hours of pleasure.

Desserts fare less well than entrees. Both the pecan and lime pies were dry and stale-tasting. Settle instead for one of the Italian mint creams near the cashier.

With large portions and reasonable prices, The Buffet may be Washington's best underground secret.