He didn't exactly whisper, but Lawrence Hayes of Northwest had a conspiratorial tone to his voice when he called the other day.

"You might want to check this out," he said. "You know that chain of restaurants called Steak and Ale in Northern Virginia? They're violating the law."

"How so?" I inquired. Well, said Lawrence, Virginia law says a bar or restaurant cannot advertise on its exterior the fact that it sells liquor, and cannot sell any kind of liquor that it advertises on its exterior. As a result, Steak and Ale has not been able to serve ale in Northern Virginia, Lawrence asserted. The establishment can and does serve other kinds of booze, according to Lawrence, but not the kind of alcohol in its name.

Well, the truth is that Steak and Ale serves both steak and ale -- and has since March 11, 1980. But to become a Steak and Ale worthy of the name, the restaurant chain had to obtain a variance from the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

According to Larry Gilman of the ABC Board, Virginia law says that an advertisement on the exterior of an establishment that sells liquor cannot indicate that fact in letters more than six inches tall. The letters on the front of Steak and Ale were six times that high. Even though "Ale" is part of the name of the place, the fact that that word appears in the sign is still considered an advertisement by the ABC.

But Steak and Ale is a nationwide chain. Would it have to change its name in just one of the 50 states?

All the company had to do, says Gilman, was to petition the ABC Board under Section 60, subsection E, of the board's regulations. This language authorizes an exemption from the no-liquor-ads rule "if good cause is shown." The fact that Steak and Ale's trade name was recognized nationwide was good enough cause for the board, according to Gilman, so they granted the exemption.

A good thing, too. Can you imagine a restaurant called Steak and Shhhhh?

I always knew the Pentagon had its act together, and Dan Freeman of Annapolis has just arrived front and center to prove it.

On the eighth corridor of the Pentagon's first floor, says Dan, some wag has rearranged and altered the lettering on a sign that used to read: "Keep doors closed please."

It now reads:

"Keep coors cold please."