1321 Rockville Pike, Rockville


Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

Prices: Most items $2 to $4.

Credit cards: None accepted.

Wally's has an idea that can't miss: serving fast food of better quality and wider variety than the major chains offer, yet cheaper (and a lot less fancy) than the mahogany-and-brass upscale pubs with their $6 burgers. It all works out pretty well.

The place is big (it's in the building formerly occupied by Crab Louie's), the operation is smooth, the prices are indeed very low and the food, if not outstanding, is almost all reliably good. In a way, it's working out too well. There are already crowds, and since this is a great place for a family to get plenty of good food at a budget price, those crowds contain a high proportion of young children. That means the din early on a weekend night can resemble a 5-year-old's birthday party.

The ordering arrangement is the same as at the fast food chains: You select from a menu posted above the counter and pay for your meal on the spot. The choices consist of several kinds of hamburgers, pizza, spit-roasted chicken, chicken breast sandwiches, chili, fried shrimp, salads, stuffed potatoes, burritos, Mexican pizza, french fries, onion rings, and frozen custard, a specialty of the house. But unlike the usual fast food routine, you seat yourself and wait for a server to bring your order to the table. Even on a crowded night, the system is speedy and efficient.

The hamburgers, served on good, crusty rolls, are thicker and less fatty than the ones turned out by the fast food chains, but they're not as hefty or as juicy as the yuppie-burgers served at the fancy pubs. At $2.69 for a regular hamburger, that's certainly a fair compromise. (If you want your burger at all pink inside, order it rare.) The grilled chicken sandwiches, on the same rolls, are pleasant enough but nothing special.

The spit-roasted chicken, on the other hand, is outstanding, one of the best items in the house, and at $3.89 for half of a big bird, it's a bargain to boot. The meat is moist, the skin delicately crisp, and an old-fashioned chicken gravy is served alongside it.

Wally's chili is served Cincinnati-style, over spaghetti. It's slightly sweet, only mildly hot, and contains nicely chunky hamburger.

The immense stuffed potatoes are meals in themselves, and they're very good, particularly the ones filled with cheddar cheese and thin strips of tender beef. The Mexican pizza, too, is excellent, a crisp flour tortilla topped with cheese and bits of bright, fresh tomato and scallion -- light, nongreasy, lovely to look at and eat.

We can't say as much for the dark, oily fried shrimp, though. The "sleeper" on Wally's menu is the terrific onion rings, golden beauties with sweet, lively onion and a light, crisp batter.

The frozen custard may not satisfy true aficionados, but it's smooth and pleasantly eggy. Have it with the unusually good deep-dish apple pie, or as a super sundae with pecans and fudge sauce. Or try it softened and mixed with various flavorings, in what Wally's calls a "concrete."