Jody Sweeney had tired of a Capitol Hill restaurant's policy that kept her and other waitresses in the saloon while waiters worked the dining room, where tips usually were higher. But when she and some waitresses asked to work the dining room, their bosses said no.

"We were told it would be 50 years until women would get to work in the dining room, and they said that compared to the plight of blacks, we should consider ourselves lucky," she said.

But it actually took less than a year. Sweeney filed a complaint with the District's human rights agency, alleging sexual discrimination by the restaurant. The agency found "probable cause" of bias, and the restaurant settled the case by paying Sweeney an undisclosed sum and allowing waitresses to work the dining room.

Discrimination by restaurants is a problem the Washington-based Women's Legal Defense Fund, assisted by several local groups, hopes to fight through its preparation of a handbook detailing the rights of waitresses and other restaurant workers.

The handbook covers laws on sexual, racial and age discrimination, wages, tips, taxes, work-place health and safety, unionization and illegal immigrants. It lists government agencies and private organizations where workers can file complaints or seek advice. The book will be published when funding is obtained, a defense fund spokeswoman said.

Publicizing those rights is vital because "most women have, at some point in time, been a waitress or know that if worse comes to worse, they could fall back on waitressing," said Donna R. Lenhoff, the fund's associate director for legal policy and programs.

Local women's rights activists and union officials concede they have no statistics to support them, but they say discrimination by restaurants is a prevalent problem.

"If you go around town to the expensive restaurants, you'll find they only have men" waiting on customers, said Claudia Wayne, an attorney with the Women's Rights Clinic of Antioch Law School in the District.

But John S. Cockrell, executive vice president of the 1,100-member Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said he didn't think hiring discrimination was a prevalent problem. "I really don't know of any place that says it only hires waiters because they want only men to wait on customers," he said.

Officials of Montgomery and Prince George's counties' and Rockville's human rights commissions, responsible for enforcing local civil rights laws, said they receive few complaints of discrimination from waitresses and do not consider it a widespread problem.

Waitresses have filed four discrimination complaints this year with the Prince George's County Human Relations Commission, an agency spokeswoman said. Two cases were settled in favor of the waitresses, and the other two are under investigation. Statistics from Montgomery County's and Rockville's agencies were not available.

But Anita B. Shelton, director of D.C.'s Office of Human Rights, said discrimination is a more serious problem in the District. "Among the leading restaurants in town, other than cafeterias and lunchrooms, probably you would find 80 percent of the work force is male, and there are few opportunities for waitresses, except in the hotels," she said.

Shelton said her agency plans next month to launch a general survey of the sexual and racial composition of city restaurants' staffs and an in-depth look at certain businesses' work forces. Complaints could be filed against restaurants found to discriminate, she said.

An independent study of racial discrimination by restaurants is under way by the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 25, which has contracts mostly at District hotels and restaurants, said Ron Richardson, the local's executive secretary-treasurer.

Antidiscrimination laws of the District, Rockville and Prince George's County cover all restaurants, regardless of size. Montgomery County's law applies only to firms with more than six employes.

Nationally, nearly 90 percent of the 1.5 million persons who waited on tables in 1981 were women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Local figures are not available, but Richardson estimated that 65 percent of his local's 10,000 members are women. He said the union represents workers at most District hotels and about 10 percent of the city's restaurants.

Although women are the majority of the restaurant industry's employes, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports full-time waitresses in 1981 had a median weekly income, including tips, of about $144, while waiters earned about $200.

Lauren Taylor, the defense fund's community education coordinator, attributed the waitresses' lower income partly to hiring discrimination. "Women don't get the good-paying jobs in the fancier places," she said. "The jobs where the pay and tips are higher are held by men."

Richardson echoed Taylor on the hiring practices, saying: "I think if you go into . . . any of the really big-time restaurants, you would probably find no waitresses." The owners and managers seem to believe "waiters denote a higher class of restaurant. That's baloney," he said.

Another factor for waitresses' lower income is that some restaurants assign women to work during lunch and men during dinner, when higher menu prices generally mean larger tips, or have waiters work dining rooms while waitresses are restricted to working in the restaurants' bars, Taylor said.

Other problems waitresses say they face are pregnancy-related firings and sexual harassment, ranging from looks or jokes to pinches or pats to demands for sexual favors by customers, co-workers or supervisors, to the wearing of suggestive uniforms.

Some restaurant owners have fired pregnant waitresses out of a paternal feeling that women shouldn't work in such condition, Taylor said. But, she added, "You cannot treat pregnancies any different than you treat those with a temporary disability."

Terri Kerrigan of Rockville recalled the time she was working in a Montgomery County restaurant when a supervisor told her to arrange a date for him with a friend of hers if she didn't want problems. "I was carrying a tray of drinks, and I dropped it on the floor and walked out," she said. "Yeah, I quit on the spot."

But harassment has not occurred in all restaurants where she has worked, she said: At another establishment, the manager fired the maitre d' after he learned that the man had told waitresses they should date him if they didn't want their jobs made more difficult, the woman recalled.

Another Montgomery waitress, who asked not to be named, said: "Everyone will admit there is sexual harassment, and no one likes it, but that's part of the job of waitressing, although it shouldn't be."

While the women's rights activists contend that discrimination is a prevalent problem among restaurants, restaurant owners disagree.

Dorothy Dee, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, contends that discrimination generally is not found in the food service industry. "Undoubtedly it can occur on an individual basis, but that's just like any other industry," she said.

Vito Zappala, a co-owner of Gary's Restaurant in the District, said the city's more expensive restaurants tend to have only waiters. He said that although Gary's now only has men waiting tables, in the past it has employed women in the jobs.

Garth Weldon, manager of The Prime Rib in the District, which does not have waitresses, said: "It's true that the trend in the fine restaurants is to have men in tuxedos waiting on tables." He said he didn't know of any expensive restaurants in his area that have waitresses.

"We would like to hire women to do it. But one of the problems is that there's a certain amount of background needed," Weldon said. "It's somewhat of a Catch-22 situation. You want to hire people who have worked in the best places. There are very few women who have that in their family or background."

He said few women apply for waitressing. "I can't remember the last time one came in," Weldon said.

The women's rights activists say discrimination continues in restaurants because many waitresses fear they will be fired if they complain, although such retaliation is illegal. Others simply quit rather than put up with the problem, the activists said.

Terri Kerrigan contends that the fear of retaliation prevented co-workers at a Rockville restaurant from supporting her when she filed a complaint with Rockville's Human Rights Commission. Kerrigan alleged sexual discrimination after she was fired five years ago from the restaurant because she refused to work Christmas Eve, a shift waiters were given off.

She said an agency investigator told her the lack of witnesses weakened her case. Kerrigan could have pursued the complaint in court, but she said she "would have had to get an attorney and it wasn't worth the bother."

She said the restaurant's owner denied the discrimination charges and told the investigator that she had quit.

"To file a charge is a time-consuming and emotionally draining thing, especially if you're still working at the same place," said Lenhoff of the Women's Legal Defense Fund.

But Jody Sweeney was willing to fight the Capitol Hill restaurant's policy that permitted only waiters to work the dining room, where they earned up to three times as much in tips as did waitresses. After her boss refused to allow her to work the dining room, she filed a sexual discrimination complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights.

The agency found "probable cause" of bias, and the restaurant settled the case by paying Sweeney an undisclosed sum and allowing waitresses to work the dining room. The restaurant denied any wrongdoing. As part of the settlement, Sweeney agreed not to identify the restaurant.

Sweeney, 25, now a massage therapist, said she finds satisfaction in causing the restaurant to change its policy. "We've put employers on notice that this is the 1980s, that we're not going to step down on the rights that we've won," she said.