Night falls on Georgetown like a sable cape, lights begin to flicker and suddenly people are everywhere.

Spilling over from sidewalks onto jammed streets, strolling in cosmopolitan chic or tour-bus casual, they stake out the shops, restaurants and nightclubs and claim the elite, historic district as their own.

"This is like being at home almost, like your own neighborhood," said Gary Smithwick, a 25-year-old resident of Southeast Washington who said he comes to Georgetown almost every Saturday night. "Every time you come here you see someone you haven't seen in a long time, someone you grew up with. You can stand and talk and see the sights."

On weekends, Georgetown is Washington's front porch. People bump into old friends, make new ones. They chat, window-shop, kiss under the Whitehurst Freeway, throw change to street musicians, carry vendors' red roses, sit on cars and play the radio (sun roofs and hatchbacks open) as if settling down for a day at the beach.

There are two worlds in Georgetown. For more discriminating tastes, there are establishments like the Pisces Club, F. Scott's, the Georgetown Club, Charlie's Georgetown, Chinoiserie and Blues Alley, which are protected from the masses by understated facades and locations off the well-trodden Wisconsin-and-M pathway.

But to the chronic dismay of some Georgetown residents, the streets and a circuit of popular nightclubs are a commercial everyman's land.

"We want to be free to live as a community and not some kind of glorified freak show," said Paul Chadwell, a resident of Potomac Street NW, who, like many Georgetowners, says he is fed up with the traffic, noise and vandalism that are the byproducts of nearby discos.

Although many Georgetown merchants say this is the worst summer for business they have seen in years, one bartender in a popular nightclub said it can gross $10,000 on a Saturday night. More than 100 businesses in the area serve liquor.

Peak hours are 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., during which period the D.C. Department of Transportation estimates about 10,000 cars and 6,000 pedestrians travel through the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street. The action stops only after 2 a.m., when serving liquor is forbidden, and the streets slowly empty as people try to remember where they parked.

Before the dawn reclaims the streets, there are myriad human sights and sounds, often in stark contrast. There are out-of-town families trying to decide where to eat: "But I don't want steak" went the refrain recently outside Dino's Steakhouse. At Commander Salamander, punk rockers in concentration camp coiffures gobble up New Wave merchandise just like the middle-class consumers they disdain.

In Blues Alley and Charlie's, jazz-lovers sip drinks and converse in muted tones. At Annie Oakley's Wild West Bar, Virginians like Susie Plundeke, 19, arrive every weekend ("if we can find a car") to drink beer, play pool, meet people and talk, despite the pulsating sound system.

Marines, who invade Georgetown on Saturday nights, also frequent Annie Oakley's, with its mirrored dance floor and patrons in cowboy hats. "It's a very loose, relaxed place," said Rick Del Grande, 23, who lives in the Marine barracks at Eighth and I streets SE. Del Grande, sporting a high-and-tight haircut, said in confidential tones, "I'll tell you what. You can meet a lot of women if you want but I got a girl back home."

On M Street, in the recently opened disco called The Library, patrons from Potomac and other affluent suburbs gyrate under strobe lights and ignore the books lining the walls. Outside Winston's rock 'n' roll cave, jean-clad youths wait impatiently to show identification to bouncer Wally Costner, whose 21 years of living are distributed through a 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame. "Now which one of y'all is going to tell me that's her?" Costner yelled to a group of giggling girls, as he examined a fake I.D. card.

"Wally, you can punch me in the face five times and I'd still look better than you," said a tall, lanky fellow as he pulled out his wallet. "Now that's a babe," he said, pointing to a picture of a blond.

"My dog's better'n that," replied Costner.

Winston's is part of the cluster of bars in the 3200 block of M Street, which includes Crazy Horse, Desperados, Beneath It All and Paul Mall. Area residents complain that loud music and rowdy patrons are the bane of their lives. They say customers park illegally, drink beer, urinate on sidewalks and gardens, and vandalize property before driving away intoxicated.

"That block is becoming another 14th Street strip," said attorney Courts Oulahan, who is representing Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3A and the Georgetown Citizens Association in an old battle aimed at reducing the number of Class C (restaurants) liquor licenses granted in the area.

But Winston's manager Scott Spaulding said his bar and the others are "scapegoats" for every problem that arises in the busy district. "I've heard something about the problem ," he said, "but I understand it's a tradition since Georgetown has had nightclubs." Spaulding said Winston's patrons are college students from George Washington and American universities, "which are considered some of the finest academic institutions. These kids are very well-behaved," Spaulding said.

Back on Wisconsin Avenue, Mr. Henry's of Georgetown bar and restaurant, where gays and straights mingle freely, is so demure ("We're not a cruise bar, hon," said waiter Mark Redell) that families and heterosexual couples sometimes wander in, only to look around and walk right back out. One amorous pair -- a man and woman -- eating dinner and oblivious to their surroundings, was asked, "Did you know this is considered a gay bar?"

"This is?" said the women. Her date swallowed hard on his fried fish.

"Well," she said with a drawl, "We're gay. We're happy."

Not everyone in Mr. Henry's was as happy as the wide-eyed North Carolina visitor, though. "I'm getting disillusioned with gay life," said the 39-year-old man. He said he comes to Mr. Henry's mainly for conversation. "It's okay for young people in their twenties. But I'm not interested in going to discos and taking drugs. . . . I don't think I'll every be able to live with anyone, although I get very lonely sometimes."

The need for human contact draws many to bars in Georgetown. In Mr. Smith's, while the young frolic in the garden patio, older patrons get melancholy around the piano bar, singing, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing" and "Eidelweiss," harmonizing with strangers in a minor key. In Nathan's, where sophisticated young professionals mingle before a backdrop of forest green walls and framed pastel hunting scenes, a lawyer explained his presence simply: "It's loneliness, the human condition."

But Bruce Norris, cartoonist for The Georgetowner newspaper and a Nathan's regular, goes about finding a companion creatively. He draws the caricature of an attractive woman, or sometimes, he says, "I'll tell a woman she reminds me of an actress. I try to pick obscure ones, then they'll say, 'Really, what does she look like? What movies was she in?' And I'll go down the list and that gets them talking."

Friendships often begin in Georgetown bars. James Muggy (Mike) Smith, a self-proclaimed "filthy rich" Indiana University student from Arlington, and Brian Storz, a Tulane University student from Savannah, Ga., met in the Third Edition this summer.

"I had this girl friend with me I couldn't stand," Smith said, "so I went up to Brian and asked him to get rid of her for me." Storz said he spit beer. "He totally grossed her out," said Smith, with relish.

"We're probably the preppiest people in there and we really bum people out," he said, leaning against the wall outside Winston's and looking oh-so-preppy in his pink-and-green plaid bow tie and pink sweater. Storz, in Kelly green bermuda shorts, planted a noisy smooch on Smith's lips.

"Sometimes we take our pants off and it really bums people out," Smith said, with Storz at his side, doing exactly that. "We wear our boxer shorts and some say 'Oh, my God, who are these guys?' "

"Actually, Georgetown is my neighborhood," Smith said. "I spend a lot of time here. Some places, I fit right in. At others, I shock people."

"Ma'am," said the Winston's manager, gazing on the exhibition with horror, "I hope you don't think they reflect my clientele."