Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

Atmosphere: Relaxed congeniality.

Price range: Sandwiches, pizzas and burgers from $3.95 to $9.95. American and German dinners from $6.75 to $11.50.

Credit cards: American Express, Visa, MasterCard.

Reservations: Suggested for dinner.

Special features: Limited street parking; pay public lots across the street. First-floor dining is accessible to handicapped. Booster seats; one highchair.

Often when we go out to dine, we have preconceptions of a restaurant's menu, its special dishes--even its atmosphere and decor--only to find that our mental picture bears little resemblance to reality.

That happened with the Heidelberg, an Old Town restaurant that began in the Lorton area. Its name conjured up similar-sounding restaurants in other cities and the fun of beer garden dining.

Yet Heidelberg is quiet. The bar, to be sure, is ringed with a convivial crowd, but neither the first-floor dining area nor the one upstairs has music. Only the stairwell has some piped-in German oompahs.

Aside from the waitresses' German country outfits, there is little emphasis on atmosphere. There are occasional steins and similar mementos, but the emphasis is on food, and you provide your own party.

The restaurant helps somewhat with a long list of beers, both imported and domestic, including a selection of drafts in two sizes. The steins for children's sodas, though, can be unwieldly for small hands and you may want a lighter glass.

While we sipped beers and discussed the menu possibilities, we shared an order of large, hot onion rings ($2.10).

Since the three adults decided to focus on the German entrees and go beyond wurst dinners, we ignored the other appetizers and concentrated instead on finding suitable selections for the children.

They were delighted to have a hamburger ($3.95) and a shrimp basket ($5.25), rather than more expensive selections from either the German or the American listings.

Salads arrived quickly and proved a fine blend of greens with a lightly seasoned herb dressing. Yet dinner seemed to take forever. Music would have helped us forget how hungry we were. As it was, no amount of rye bread seemed to stave off the stomach growls. When dinner did appear, courses arrived several minutes apart.

The evening's winning entree was really a sandwich. The half-pound sirloin burger easily competes with many of the city's best. Complete with lettuce, tomato and respectable fries, the sandwich becomes a dinner. Maybe we should have limited our sampling to burgers; we would have dined earlier for less money.

The tiny, thickly breaded nuggets in the fried shrimp basket were unexceptional; no amount of lemon juice could redeem them.

Of the German entrees, the Wiener schnitzel ($9.95) surpassed all others. The veal was lightly breaded and quickly sauteed--a simple dish done well. Surprisingly, there were no capers, and lemon was in short supply.

The roladen ($9.75), sirloin that is rolled and baked until tender, unfortunately was overfilled with onions. The beef was tender but its taste was lost under the thick sour cream sauce and the onions.

Unable to pass up the sauerbraten and strudel, we ordered both--but found the dessert better than the main course.

The sauerbraten ($8.95) was tender but dry and overcooked around the edges. A hard crust had formed and the marinade no longer tasted subtle. The crust was overly sweet and burned. The accompanying potato dumpling with its light, sweet filling demonstrates the kitchen's pastry skills and is a perfect complement for any meal, however.

The single apple strudel we all shared that accompanied our coffee further demonstrated the kitchen's prowess with pastries.

The bill for three adults and two children, including tip, was $63.08

Next time it'll be burgers, beer and strudel--and we'll bring our own marching band.