More than 20 people came to the Capitol Hill restaurant -- the biggest group ever. Some are lawyers and congressional staffers. Others work for the Library of Congress. Mixed among the antipasto and the clinking of wine glasses, bits of serious conversation floated by.

"Her mother's a black labrador, and I guess her father's a traveling salesman" . . . . "He scratched so much that his whole rear end went bald" . . . . "He only bit one person -- I mean, really went after them -- and that was when we lived in Nairobi."

There were a few toasts over the seafood linguine, and a lot of wild laughter. These people appeared to know each other, but some had never met. They shared only one thing in common:

All own dogs, and all exercise them in the park at Third and D streets SE.

The tangled leashes, dogfights and nose sniffing -- that's what brought them together at the Trattoria Alberto restaurant Monday, under a group reservation made in the name of "Dog."

"Are the dog people here?" one couple asked on arriving (without dog).

"Oh, yes," said Linda Rulka, the acting maitre d. "Upstairs. Woof-woof."

Allen and Robyn Bishop, both foreign service officers, were there. The Bishops own a bulldog named C.J. They said he snores.

Ellen Friedman, a graduate student and owner of Kelly, a collie, was also there.

So were Tim and Sue Carlton; he's a cataloger at the Library of Congress, and she's a congressional staffer. They own two strays, Farley and Lucy.

Charles Dennis, a German shepherd owner, also showed up. He used to practice law. "You're not going to believe this," he said, "but I'm now in the business of selling dog food."

Indeed he is, and by the end of the evening, more than one person had inquired about the home-delivery service offered by his Homeward Bound Pet Products. A 40-pound bag of Iams MiniChunk is $22.90.

Everybody recognized the man who walks the black dog known as Christina, but until Monday's dinner not all knew his name. He is Mark Flynn, who heads the American-British exchange program for the Library of Congress.

For purposes of restaurant conversation, he became "Christina's father," as Pam Price, a free-lance photographer, became "Roxanne's mother."

As the evening wore on, the conversation became punctuated with such comments as:

"As I was telling Rufus' parents . . . . "

"Draco's father is a good one to ask about German shepherds."

A small group of park regulars began socializing four years ago. Gradually, the group expanded, and started going out for dinner at the Omega in Adams-Morgan or the Hunan Dynasty in Georgetown.

Monday's was the eighth official "Dog Dinner," and it drew not only the locals, but also ex-park walkers who now live in Takoma Park or Chevy Chase.

As is customary, the dog dinner arrangements were loose. The only prerequisite is that a person own a dog, and walk it in the park. Everyone is welcome, from the mother of Phoebe (a 50-pound mutt) to the father of Lucy Pretty Eagle, an aged and cantankerous Lhasa Apso.

"It's all word of mouth," said Karen Johnston, mother of Thatcher (a mutt) and Kai (a golden retriever). "We set the time in the park."

The dining room smelled of tomato sauce and burned candle wax. The conversation included a lot of Capitol Hill chatter, but eventually circled back to one topic: the dog.

People spoke of favorite veterinarians and boarding kennels, of dreams for big back yards, and of rawhide chew chips. They talked about Bandit and Chelsey and Pruitt.

But all paid tribute to the urban park in Southeast, which brings them together for prework walks before 8 a.m., dinnertime walks and an occasional last-call at midnight.

One woman, a lawyer, told a story about how she went before a new judge one day, only to discover she recognized him from the park. "I didn't know Ralph's father was a judge," she said.

"Most people you deal with on a day-to-day basis -- people you work with -- they all do the same thing," said Draco's father. "This group of people, it's totally different. You've got something in common with them, but it's not work."

"The park kind of coalesces the nature lovers that are left on Capitol Hill," said Jim Johnston, father of one baby and two dogs.

"All of our dogs are unruly," he added, "and we know they're unruly. These are congressmen's kinds of dogs, not senatorial dogs, like in Georgetown."

"Everybody just gathers in the park," said his wife Karen. "The dogs run and play and, occasionally, fight. Some people have actually moved away, but they come back. They say their dogs aren't happy with other dogs in other parks."

The Johnstons are about to move out of Washington for the larger yards and rural quiet of St. Michael's, Md. Karen Johnston said she'll miss the park, but is glad her dogs will have the woods to sniff.

"Don't worry," she said. "We'll be back for the dog dinners.