For 35 years, it's been one of Washington's primary eating and meeting places.

It's open only for breakfast and lunch, but its customers have included Rose Mary Woods, John R. Connally, Robert C. McFarlane and untold numbers of the country's highest paid attorneys.

But that will all come to an end at 2 p.m. today when the cafeteria at the U.S. District Courthouse, Third Street and Constitution Avenue NW, closes its doors, despite a 16-month battle by the city's top federal judges to keep the steam tables running.

The cavernous basement area, where thousands of jurors, lawyers, court employes, witnesses, reporters, marshals and police officers have been served hot meals since 1952, is to be transformed this weekend into just another giant vending machine room.

Gone will be Pearl Woody, who has presided over the cafeteria for four years from her perch at the cash register, and the ice cream freezer that has the cheapest Dove Bars in town (less than $1).

The General Services Administration says there just aren't enough people in the building to support a full-service cafeteria and that the operation has been losing money since 1973. And with such longtime losses, it's not worth the "several hundred thousand dollars" it would cost to renovate the facilities so they might be more attractive to concession companies.

"Because the equipment is so antiquated . . . there were no takers on our last bid request," explained Joseph Perry, a court administrative official. ServiceAmerica, the food service firm that has operated the cafeteria for two years, has consistently lost money and has terminated its contract, he said.

Yesterday, as cafeteria workers struggled to keep the steam compressors working, much of the lunchtime chatter focused on the cafeteria's imminent demise and the effect it will have on court operations.

"It's a real loss," said defense attorney James L. Lyons, who was in the cafeteria line after attending a morning hearing. A former assistant U.S. attorney, Lyons said that the cafeteria has always been the place lawyers and their clients met over a fresh cup of coffee, and that those meetings have produced countless plea bargains and out-of-court settlements.

"Can you imagine a courthouse, or any government building this large, without a cafeteria?" asked Greg Hughes, manager of public services in the clerk's office.

Although some nearby buildings, including the Department of Labor, D.C. Superior Court and the National Gallery of Art, have public eating facilities, most are already crowded, and there are few carryout places in the vicinity.

Judges are being asked to allow longer lunch breaks during trials, which will reduce the amount of actual court time each day.

And, in some instances, marshals will be pressed into service as ersatz caterers. Trial juries are usually given meals while they are deliberating; now requests will have to be delivered to marshals by 10:15 a.m. so they can have the orders filled by noon.

Today's end is in stark contrast to the October 1952 day when the cafeteria opened along with what was billed as the newest and most up-to-date courthouse in the country.

Magistrate Jean F. Dwyer recalled yesterday that for several years after it opened she, as a young lawyer, could get soup, saltines and milk for 27 cents.

William F. Garber, who was sworn in as a lawyer the same month the courthouse opened, said yesterday that back then the courthouse handled almost all legal matters in the District -- from divorces to murders and other local criminal cases.

The building was so crowded, he said, that a pass was required to eat in the cafeteria during the lunch rush to ensure that sitting jurors could finish in time to return to their trials.

Open each day at 7:30 a.m., the cafeteria has long drawn a big breakfast crowd with its wide selection of foods including homemade biscuits, grits and fried salmon patties.

"The first thing many judges and attorneys do when they get to the courthouse is go to the cafeteria for breakfast or coffee," Garber said.

"It just won't be the same."