Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays, noon to 11 p.m. Saturdays, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.

Credit Cards: Master Charge, Visa.

Price Range: $2.50 to $3.95.

The finale of a recent dinner at the Hard Times Cafe was so extraordinary that we're going to blurt out the ending before we tell the story: $42.69.

For six. For four adults and two teen-age boys, to be precise, who ate: five bowls of chili with beans, onions and cheese; one hamburger; two orders of onion rings; two orders of steak fries; one plate heaped with corn bread; one small mountain of cole slaw; and some pie, and who drank five beers and two soft drinks. And were stuffed.

The prices at this cheerful chili house partly reflect its location: a stretch of King Street that investors and urban redevelopers so far have ignored. It's a neighborhood in transition--at least poised for transition, which is bound to begin once the Metro opens two blocks away.

There are art and antique galleries here and there, otherwise the area includes a used-car lot, a Laundromat, a wholesale restaurant supply house, shells of stores boarded up and drab houses with fake stone fronts. And there, like a buttercup blooming in the pavement, is the Hard Times Cafe.

The regulars who pack this restaurant three deep at the chili bar--even on a Thursday night--know the legend by now: how a local artist used to cook great pots of chili for his friends and serve them in his living room, how he mortgaged his home and car to expand to a real cafe--all this to build a sort of shrine to the western spirit.

It looks like a cross between a luncheonette and a California cafe, with brick tile floors and varnished wooden booths big enough for six, a steer hide hanging from the ceiling and a barbed-wire collection by the grill, flags of the southwestern states and cowboy photos on the walls. This is possibly the only restaurant in the area that features Boots Randolph, the Pure Prairie League and Billy "Crash" Craddock on the same jukebox.

The menu is almost exclusively chili--good chili--with three different kinds that have distinctively different tastes. The most popular are Cincinnati Chili, finely ground meat with the sweet scent of cinnamon in a light tomato base, and Texas Chili, coarser, richer and musty with cumin. We prefer the Texas Chili.

As reviewers, we decided to be martyrs and ordered the third kind--vegetarian chili made with "tangy soy protein," which sounds like something we wouldn't feed to a herd dog. But the waiter told us that some vegetarians are convinced they've been slipped some meat, and we believe they believe it because the meatless version is actually good. The beef chilis, however, are better.

Once you've chosen your chili, you can still be neurotic with indecision, because now you must choose whether to have it on pinto beans or spaghetti, topped with raw chopped onions or grated cheese, or in any combination of the above. We'd like the chilis to be spicier; if you would, too, sprinkle your bowl with Tabasco or, better yet, vinegar that's infused with crushed red peppers.

After the chili, most other items on the menu are an afterthought--a half smoke (topped with chili), a 6-oz. hamburger (topped with chili, again, if you want it), a tuna sandwich and a chef salad. We'd fault the restaurant for the salad, but, on the other hand, anyone who orders a dish like that in a place like this deserves to be left at home.

But there are two side dishes that you absolutely cannot do without: onion rings and steak fries. These are onion rings, we believe, the way they were intended to be: thick and sweet, draped in a crisp veil of batter, piled high on a plate--almost heaven. (If they come a bit too greasy, as they occasionally do, send them back and ask for another order) The fries are fat, soft inside and crusted brown on the outside.

There's a decent list of beers, including two Texas brands, and inexpensive wines by the glass.

Skip the desserts--pies from a local bakery are okay but no better. We stopped on the way home for ice cream. Good food, good spirit and great prices deserve a silky finish.