Cafeteria trays slide through the fried fish and salad lines in the basement of Fairfax County's courthouse complex. Ice clunks into plastic cups. The place smells of hamburgers and cookies, and the cash register buzzes. It's 12:30 p.m., and everybody who is anybody in Fairfax is at lunch -- here.

The police are here a lot, sometimes rehashing gory murder cases while dripping catsup from their sandwiches. Also the county's judges, balancing trays of spaghetti and lemonade. And the top politicians, talking "development patterns" or "revitalization strategies."

Instead of sending memos, officials often nail each other over the popular $1.45 liver-and-onion platter. Sheriff M. Wayne Huggins estimates that lawyers hammer out a high percentage of the county's plea bargains in this cafeteria.

Says County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert, a regular: "This is our answer to the power lunch. It's the Sans Souci of Fairfax."

The first to arrive at the cafeteria when it opens at 7 each morning are the sheriff's deputies, in uniform. Then the lawyers and their clients; doughnuts anchor nerves in traffic or divorce court. And, finally, employes from finance or assessments -- as in: "Oh, so you're Jean from assessments."

"And when they release the drunk tank in the morning at the jail, you get these guys coming through -- they've got the DTs and the bleary eyes," said John Vickers, the cafeteria's food service director. "Just the other day, I caught one of them out back, going through the garbage in my dumpster."

The cafeteria opens again at 11 a.m. for lunch. An estimated 500 to 700 customers come through before closing time at 3 p.m., more if there's a big trial going on upstairs.

Such was the case last spring, during the $10 million civil lawsuit against David K. Davoudlarian, a prominent gynecologist whose wife was found strangled in the family station wagon in a parking lot at Dulles International Airport, and whose stepdaughters accused him of killing her.

Their suit against Davoudlarian was eventually settled after a jury failed to agree, but cafeteria-goers for weeks continued to debate the burning question left unresolved in courtrooms 5C and 5D: "Did he do it?"

Although the cafeteria is only three years old, it's one of the last bits of small-town left in this big-boom county, where every highway seems to flash hot orange with a Roy Rogers restaurant, and "distinctive-design" homes burst forth overnight from the red Virginia dirt.

Local art-for-sale hangs on the walls. Circuit Court Judge Barnard F. Jennings, who dines there on soup most days, turned interior decorator and selected the room's heavy wood tables after seeing some he liked in an AT&T cafeteria.

As in any small-town restaurant, the cafeteria employes know what the regulars like to eat.

For example, Pat McDonald, the county's deputy executive for management and budget, always has tuna or turkey on rye. Behind the counter, Mili Shroeder always pops the rye bread in the toaster when she sees him coming.

Jurors, looking tired and wearing big "JUROR" buttons, eat in segregated glory. Judges have a private room available to them, too, with their own bottles of A-1 and Worcestershire sauce, but some, such as Circuit Court Judge Johanna L. Fitzpatrick, regularly pop into the main cafeteria.

Fairfax's cafeteria lures plaid-shirted workmen building the new jail. Husbands and wives in nasty divorce cases sit several tables apart, trying not to look at each other. The court reporters sometimes eat there, as do the title examiners and the women who staff the information booth.

"Plus, they have their loonies down there," said Rosie Small, executive director of the Fairfax Bar Association. "The crazies who stand on tables and regale people with whatever's on their minds. Usually, it's something like they're getting outer-space messages from the air-conditioning vents."

One county heavyweight who rarely uses the cafeteria is Board of Supervisors Chairman John F. Herrity.

"My schedule is such that I don't eat over there," he said. "Like today, I gotta go out to this Chinese joint at Tysons for a meeting. I just don't have the opportunity to engage in that kind of gossip, although I imagine it's pretty heavy."

County Executive Lambert is a familiar face in the cafeteria. The other day, he sat at a table near the windows and munched a chef's salad.

"One, this place is convenient," he said. "Two, the food's not bad -- that bad. And, three, you can take care of business here."

In mid-lunch, Sheriff Huggins ferreted him out to ask a question. "Jay's a son-of-a-gun to do business with unless he's eating," he said. "When he's eating, he's all limbered up -- mellowed up."

The same might be said of Huggins, an avid hunter, who once dug into his pocket for a turkey call and serenaded the cafeteria with the loud gobbling of a wild turkey in springtime.

Huggins left, and Lambert put on his glasses to get a clearer fix on which cafeteria regulars were eating that day.

"There's Sam Patteson from assessments," he said. "He's over there shaking hands with somebody. Obviously somebody who hasn't received their assessments."

"And there's Verdia," he added, nodding toward Verdia L. Haywood, the deputy county executive for human services. "Let me see. He's talking to the lady from purchasing, I think."

Haywood ambled over. He complained that the cafeteria-sized portion of fried fish wasn't big enough.

"I'm a known eater," he said.

"Verdia can smell a cake on the fourth floor," said Jean VanDevanter, the county's public affairs director.

"In a box, too," Lambert put in.

Haywood is 6 feet 2, and weighs 198.

"I hope your story motivates folks to increase the size of the helpings," he said.