You may not see "Return of the Jedi"-caliber blockbusters at the Bethesda Cinema 'N Drafthouse right after they are released. But then you'll pay only $2 admission to see films such as "Sophie's Choice" and "The Verdict" in second runs--and waitresses will serve pizza and beer, if you like.

The cavernous art deco movie palace at 7719 Wisconsin Ave. opened as the Bethesda in 1938, the year "You Can't Take It With You" won best picture and Bette Davis and Spencer Tracy took top acting honors. The theater saw glitter times in the '40s but barely survived the '70s. Most recently its owners screened Chinese B movies of the kung fu ilk--but to nearly empty houses. It was rumored the place was about to be leveled to make way for an office complex.

Instead, the Bethesda has found new life. It reopened in May as a combination movie theater and modest cafe, with a capacity of 400 at 85 tables and along 12 counters on three tiers. The film changes every Friday but showtimes never vary: 7:30 and 9:45 daily, plus midnight shows Friday and Saturday.

"The only problem is people have trouble seeing their money," says waitress Joan DeKramer, 20, of Olney. "And some don't think they're supposed to tip." She says she's seen "48 Hours" four times between filling orders, and still doesn't know the plot.

The Cinema 'N Drafthouse is part of an Atlanta-based franchise, started in 1975 by two brothers in Orlando, Fla. The firm now has 13 outlets in six states. Manager Peter Carney, 27, one of four investors who put $250,000 into renovating the theater, says the idea is "economically efficient" for patrons who get a show and cheap dinner without jamming elbows with their neighbors in tight rows of traditional theater seats.

The atmosphere is that of a dark cocktail lounge, with a glass-enclosed bar and grill in the rear. Ashtrays are available on each table, for better or worse. Carney says the layout gives everyone a clear view, plus twice the leg room of a conventional movie house.

But the theme is nostalgia: from the carefully restored art deco architecture to the 40-year-old projector in the lobby. "They were still using it when we took over," Carney says. "It was a relic sitting upstairs in the booth."

The imposition of tables doesn't diminish the possibilities for that other movie house tradition, slipping a sly arm around a date. There are love seats, a tight squeeze without armrests, for 10 couples in the center of the house.

"We wouldn't fit in the love seats," says Virginia Minich, 30, who walked to the theater with her husband from their home a few blocks away. She figures she consumed less popcorn but more beer than she would have on a usual night at the movies. "It's a great idea. It doesn't matter to me about first-run movies . . . . If you drink and have friends over, you'll spend the same amount."

A spokesman for the National Association of Theater Owners was less enthusiastic about the innovation. "When people go to a movie, they want to concentrate. They want a dark atmosphere in order to feel a part of the movie as it's unreeling. This is more like a bar with a TV in it," said Jerome Gordon, the trade association's executive director. "They can charge less and get it back on what they sell."

Sandwiches are $3, a pizza is $4.75, cheesedogs are $1.25 and, for the traditional set, popcorn is 75 cents. CAPTION: Picture, A cafe setting, second-run movies and $2 admission have reversed Bethesda theater's decline. By Vanessa Barnes Hillian -- The Washington Post