Family night out.

We are not talking about the time when, exhausted from a day of shopping or running errands, you and the family car crawl into the parking lot of the nearest french-fry factory and everybody gulps down whatever is available. An evening out should be something more, a break from the usual routine for children as well as parents.

As family nights out become more expensive, it becomes more important to get your money's worth. Parents also understand that where family dining is concerned, the initial problem of expense is multiplied by the number of dependents who sit down to dine with them. This is complicated by the fact that children at mealtime tend to turn into hungry hordes: impatient, fussy, hard to satisfy and harder to ignore.

All this is understood by the fast food chains, which have made a fortune providing families with acceptable food at reasonable prices. It is also understood by restaurateurs who want to appear to welcome the family trade.

There was, for instance, the Italian restaurant we frequented in the early days of our marriage. When we began to show up with a little one in tow, we found ourselves ushered through the central dining room to what we came to call the Boom-Boom Room, a forgotten, rear chamber where anybody who required a highchair or a booster seat was banished.

You need not confine yourself to restaurants where every other chair is occupied by somebody two feet tall, however, and the noise level is equivalent to liftoff at Cape Canaveral. There are other choices:

* Ethnic Restaurants. Mom and Pop operations, with sons, daughters and cousins working the cash register and waiting on tables, are very hospitable to families. They can be pleasant and informal at the same time, and are a good way to prepare children for more sophisticated evenings out. The restaurant may be small and plain but you are likely to get home-cooked food that is individually and lovingly prepared.

Ethnic dishes are based on what is plentiful in a country's economy: usually familiar foods like pork, chicken, lamb or seafood. Some form of pasta or pancake is typical in most cultures. Children will not have trouble with this if you translate the menu into terms they can understand: "Would you like roast pork or some baked chicken?" Or you can present new foods in terms of old familiar ones: a bratwurst, after all, is just a German hot dog.

* Standard-American-Fare Chains. If you require more style for your dining out dollar, many chains subscribe to the simple formula of a steak and potato on your plate and a rug under your feet, all for a reasonable price. In these restaurants, everything is organized for efficiency. Some of the food may be prepared outside the restaurant, meaning ingredients are less than completely fresh, and food may be precooked and reheated under microwaves.

Menu choices will reflect what is commonly popular and perhaps trendy: beef and french fries, pizza and tacos, quiche and California-style salads. Master recipes ensure that the food doesn't vary much. These places use the McDonald's formula with flair. They are usually comfortable and stylish, often with a theme or gimmick to attract attention.

In these economically depressed times, several of these chains offer half-price dinner promotions or reduced prices on children's dinners to bring families in. They can be bargains if simple food prepared for mass market tastes is to your liking.

* Neighborhood Restaurants. It is not easy to find good neighborhood restaurants these days, so if you know of one, patronize it. And don't overlook the vintage American example of this: the diner. They are informal, colorful, and usually quick, efficient and reasonably priced. Food is simple, but can be quite good, and there is always a jukebox.

* The Unconventional. Don't make the mistake of assuming that a restaurant should have four walls and tablecloths. Places like the Farm Women's Cooperative Market in Bethesda or Lexington Market in Baltimore offer prepared foods that can be carried out or eaten while you meander from stall to stall, seeing what there is for dessert.

An hour's drive will take you to the dock in Annapolis. The marketplace there allows you to feast on raw oysters while the kids indulge in fried chicken and ice cream. Watching the sailboats is free.

Church suppers, plentiful between now and Christmas, can be another interesting family dining experience. Go prepared to stand in line. They combine the informality of a picnic with the air of a festival, and in this culturally diverse city, good home cooking at reasonable prices.

* Special Occasions. Finally, if your occasion is a special one and only the nicest restaurant will do, make the most of it. Plan it, look forward to it and let the kids know something special is happening. Don't promise them it will be "fun" -- their ideas may differ from yours. But if they see that you are enthusiastic, they will be happy to be included in an adult party.

Then pick a place that genuinely welcomes well-behaved children. It will be no fun for anyone if a worried maitre d' is watching your child's every move. When a restaurant offers a children's menu and highchairs to accommodate little ones, it is safe to assume that no one will faint if your child spills her milk half way through dinner. But call ahead to make sure.

And enjoy!