They came from beyond the Capital Beltway, devoted pilgrims making their final journey to Giffords, looking for some pistachio ice cream and one last taste of another era.

"This was the first place Chet brought me after we were married," Fran McLaren said yesterday afternoon as she stared at the warped formica tables of the ice cream parlor that has been part of her life for 30 years.

"I remember days when you had to fight to get in here."

Those days ended long ago, even before the blue paint began to fade from the walls and the Baskin-Robbins came to Baileys Crossroads.

Yesterday, a week after a Baltimore bankruptcy judge ruled that Giffords must close its creaky wooden doors for good, an army of the faithful, most of them well into their 60s, lined up for their last licks.

"I just want to sit and cry," said Mary Martin, who drove from Potomac to the one-floor Virginia shop as soon as she heard the news. "When I was a little girl I went to Margie Webster Day Camp. Old Man Gifford's son went there too, and every Friday we got free ice cream."

John Gifford opened his first shop in 1938, soon after he refused to reduce the fat content of ice cream he was making for a company in Ohio. There were four stores in the Washington area. But yesterday only the Columbia Pike store was open and the manager said the last shop will stay open only until the ice cream runs out.

"The end is here," said Calver Headley, who scooped his way through college working for Giffords. "I thought we could at least make it through the summer. It's really the best ice cream."

Giffords, with its soda-fountain simplicity and secret Swiss Sauce, was a place to take a date, but it had become a place out of step in a suburban world of designer chocolates and ice cream shops the size of shoe boxes.

"I've been going there since I was a toddler," said Frank Mann, former mayor of Alexandria. "You could go there after a game, on a date and just sit and talk. Today the kids want to get in and get out and they only go places with long funny names. I think they call this progress."

With its 40-foot counter top, long rows of gaudy chandeliers and patchwork of red and white deco linoleum, the store looks today like an advertisement for a time long before Bob's Big Boy and 7-Eleven became close neighbors.

If Giffords was the apotheosis of a fresh-faced America, it was also the seat of dissent and anguish when that time passed. In the early 1960s, as the civil rights movement gained momentum, Washington area residents picketed the shops for several months until the owners agreed to serve blacks.

Those tensions have eased as well. Headley, the current manager, is black.

The founder of the shops, John Gifford, died in 1976. His son, Robert, could not be located yesterday.

"I'm just doing this to try and pay the employes some of what we owe them," said Headley yesterday as he worked alone in the store. "It's a rotten way to end."

Headley noted that Giffords was using all natural ingredients long before that concept came into vogue, that preservatives were never used at the factory in Silver Spring, and that fancy flavors were always considered a little vulgar.

"Oh my God, what can I tell my mother?" asked Paula Duncan, of Alexandria, when she saw television cameras in her favorite ice cream store. "I grew up on this stuff. My parents will die, they will just die."

At least while the supply lasts -- Swiss Sauce was the first thing to go -- the practices of half a century go on without interruption.

"Sure, why not?" Headley told an anxious customer wanting to pay for her caramels with a check. "Just make it out to Bankruptcy Court."