Free food!

That's right. In the battle to lure patrons, a growing number of city restaurants and bars are giving away food during happy hour to spice up this adult recess.

A look at what downtown bars are offering gives a good idea of what's happening from Capitol Hill to Friendship Heights. We're not talking peanuts either, but big stuff such as fix-it-yourself tacos, plump slices of oversized submarine sandwiches and oodles of spaghetti.

If big food doesn't turn you on, you can nibble on an array of hot and cold hors d'oeuvres, Thai-style chicken wings, Swedish meatballs, or crudites (called vegetables and dip in some neighborhoods). While you're eating, you can raise your half-price drinks (a staple at most happy hour spots) in a toast to those anxious-to-get-home workers who are passing it all up.

"I doubt if anyone goes to a bar just for hors d'oeuvres, but people do look at the food plus the drinks and the atmosphere as a package when they decide which places to frequent," said Jim Whitehead, co-owner of the year-old Brick Street Saloon, a club located in an alley at 1122 18th St. NW. "Food is pretty commonplace at happy hours in this part of town." Brick Street offers half-price drinks and varying hors d'oeuvres such as chicken wings and egg rolls.

The time designated as happy hour at most places is 5 to 7 p.m., to catch the after-work socializers. In addition to the free food, most bars and eateries offer a substantial reduction (often half price) on the cost of domestic beers and wines and rail drinks (mixed drinks made with one liquor, using the bar's "house brand" or one of the relatively inexpensive labels). Bartenders say people are taking advantage of the price reductions and drinking a lot of the mixed drinks.

Restaurants are also having happy hours as a way "to pick up some of the bar business," said Alan Sherman, night bartender at Cousteau's, 1820 L St. NW, which offers a free taco bar on Tuesdays and Thursdays and features other specialities on other nights.

"Anytime someone sees they're going to get something for nothing, they're going to come in," Sherman said.

Bartender Kelly Hunter of Pierce Street Annex, 1210 19th St. NW, agreed. "You get a lot of freeloaders who come in for the hors d'oeuvres and ask for water and get away with a free meal, but that happens anywhere," she said.

"When you get off work, the first thing you want to do is get a drink," said Rob Fisher, a 25-year-old George Washington University law student, who dropped in at a recent happy hour at Cousteau's. "You might as well drink at a place where drinks are discounted."

Who's doing the drinking? Most bartenders and owners say people come to happy hours in groups from nearby offices. Some downtown bars at happy hour are like old neighborhood bars, but with a twist: Instead of the people who live near you, you'll find the people who work near you.

At Cousteau's, Sherman said, the clientele is mostly "employes from local companies in a two-block radius, such as IBM (upstairs in the same building), MCI and Price Waterhouse. People get off work at 5 and come in right away at 5:05."

Cousteau's has a calm appearance, with posters of sailing ships and America's Cup races adorning the walls. But things get wilder as the night goes on. A disc jockey sets up about 6 p.m. and plays until midnight. Tables near the front window are cleared to make a dance floor.

It's party, party at New York New York, 2020 K St. NW, where the crowd gathers early to socialize at a long, long bar in a room screaming with lights and mirrors. It's happy hour, disco-style. The place is packed by 7 p.m. and the disco music can barely be heard in some spots. At the back, though, you'll probably find some couples dancing.

There's a two-drink minimum, but you get a complimentary buffet that might mean baby spareribs, spaghetti or hot dogs and sauerkraut. While most downtown happy hours are made up largely of whites, the crowd at New York New York is integrated.

"It's a melting pot crowd," said Tanya Byrd, a recent visitor. "I come for lunch and happy hour. I love it."

Some people are predicting that happy hours will end soon because of cases in which bars have been sued for liability in car accidents caused by drunk patrons. The new trend, bartender Sherman says, may be toward serving interesting food during happy hour while charging regular prices for drinks.

Not all places are discounting drinks now. At Rumors, 1900 M St. NW, "ladies only" get half-price drinks. Still, the place is filled with men in three-piece suits. At regular prices, drinks are $2.30 to $3 for bottled beer and $2.50 to $4 for mixed drinks. Buffet items might include spicy beef in pita pockets, tacos or barbecue ribs.

At Mister Day's, 1144 18th St. NW (in the alley), drinks stay at the regular price during happy hour but meals are half price.

"We'll feed you, but we won't discount drinks," said owner Robert E. Lee, who plans to add a free buffet during happy hours, starting this month. "We want you to eat, buy a drink and dance. I don't want to make my good customers drunk."