The Parker sisters are dressed elegantly for lunch -- neat print dresses and smart straw hats atop curled white hair.

The younger sister, Mary Parker Van Sant, a woman of delightful enthusiasm, can't wait to pass on to a visitor a particularly ribald moment that occurred perhaps a decade ago and has became lore among the Garfinckel's lunch-bunch, a well-established social scene in the heart of the city.

That was the time the Garfinckel's model -- the one wearing the wedding dress -- looked pregnant.

"Oh, they got a lot of complaints about it," Van Sant laughed, adding, "I suppose no one would complain now."

Van Sant and her sister Alice Lee Parker lunch at least once a week at the store's fifth-floor Greenbrier Restaurant, a primrose pink room with soft lighting and white tablecloths where luncheon salads or heartier entrees with vegetables are served at moderate prices.

They are among an informal gathering of women who go to the store at 14th and F streets NW, some of them several times a week, in couples or alone to pass the noontime hour. Many of the women are retired government workers, and lunch at Garfinckel's has become part of the fabric of their lives.

Typically they live in apartments or homes in upper Northwest Washington and arrive at Garfinckel's by taxi or bus. Many wear hats, ribboned or plumed, but mainly straw at this time of year, and most come bearing stories that are every bit as colorful and varied.

Mildred Cuddy came to Washington on her way to Florida on a vacation with her mother in 1940. But at a party she was offered a job with the deputy comptroller of the currency, and she and her mother stayed. Retired from the U.S. Information Agency in 1967, Cuddy said she has been around the world six times and just returned from three weeks in China and Hong Kong.

She lunches at the Greenbrier room about four times a week and prefers a rotunda seating arrangement in the center of the room that lends itself to conversation with other patrons.

"I like to come here because it's so easy to meet people," said Cuddy, a spirited redhead wearing tortoise-shell glasses and an aqua chiffon blouse, as she finished a filet of sole and an Old Fashioned.

A lifelong Democrat from Missouri, Cuddy's voice rose with outrage and her fists tightened each time she brought the discussion around to President Reagan, the Grenada invasion, USIA Director Charles Z. Wick, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and fashions best suited to tall 16-year-olds.

Most of the conversation she hears around her at lunch is political, which she enjoys, Cuddy said.

"One day, two men were sitting next to me and they were talking politics and I said, 'Your conversation sounds so interesting, do you mind talking louder?' " They invited her to join them as they discussed Democratic campaigns.

Margaret N. Watts has been a regular patron at Garfinckel's lunchroom since 1940 when she was working for the old Navy Department, where she was the first woman draftsman for the Bureau of Ships.

"Always had to be back on time. You know Navy discipline," said Watts, a woman with a straightforward manner, who seemed most appropriately dressed in a Navy blue suit with a white and blue bowed blouse.

After retiring 10 years ago, Watts started dining at the lunchroom more frequently with friends and relatives, drawn, she said, by a pleasant atmosphere and consistently good food and service.

The regularity of the lunches further escalated and became part of a full schedule after her mother and older sister, who had lived with her, died.

"My mother depended on me, so I didn't have a social life," Watts said, although she did once save up enough to get away by herself for a two-week ski trip to Vermont.

"For the first time, I have a life to myself," she said. "Now I can do so many things I dreamt of doing."

Watts is writing a manuscript about her experiences, which include early rocket research at the Naval Research Lab and the shift of women out of Navy drafting and engineering jobs as soon as the men came home from war.

"This was very clearly put," Watts recalled. "We were told women weren't wanted in drafting or engineering."

Rachel Modena is wearing a bright red dress and a yellow and purple bowl-shaped hat. Since her retirement from the Agriculture Department, she takes a cab from her Northwest home once or twice a week to shop and lunch at Garfinckel's.

She gave up an early stab at newspaper work in her native Tennessee when people started shooting at her car. In retirement she is trying her hand at writing short stories based on people she has known. Those who have offended her might want to beware.

"I got even with someone who called me fat, by passing on information I knew would embarrass him publicly," she reports with satisfaction. "The Lord will let 'em have it, but I can't wait for it."

Willa Brewster, the Greenbrier hostess, guessed that about 25 percent of the lunch business is with regulars. There are some men who are frequent patrons, as well, she pointed out, including a couple of lawyers who are there practically every day.

At lunch on another day, the Parker sisters are seated at a table next to the High sisters, Lynette and Louise, who are natives of Southwest Washington and lunch regulars.

Alice Parker, a 1925 Bryn Mawr graduate who worked for the Library of Congress for 33 years, said things have changed considerably at the store since her family moved to the Washington area in 1927. Then they would drive in from Chevy Chase and the doorman would park their car. "Old" Mr. Garfinckel, a "very courtly" man, would chat with customers, she said. The sales clerks knew customers by name.

"It just has a different air," she said. "But then, everything has changed."