River Terrace Diner

433 Benning Rd. NE

399-5211

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday.

Prices: Sandwiches, $3.25 to $5; dinners, $5 to $7.50. Weekdays only all-you-can-eat buffet, $6.50 for adults, $3.75 for children.

Cards: None accepted.

No smoking in the dining room.

Take a big appetite and a thin wallet to the River Terrace Diner, where old-fashioned home-style meals are available at bargain prices.

The major drawback is its location in the middle of a Northeast industrial neighborhood. Tucked into a small, aging shopping strip across the Anacostia River from Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, the restaurant overlooks eight lanes of busy Benning Road NE, Metro's above-ground track and the Potomac Electric Power Co. plant, bristling with smokestacks and power lines.

The diner is a refuge with inviting blue-and-white checked tablecloths, a bustling kitchen and lots of shining linoleum. The menu includes sandwiches, soups, entrees and desserts, with an all-you-can-eat buffet weekdays for $6.50 ($3.75 for children).

The buffet offers such home-style cooking as oven-barbecued chicken, chopped sirloin, macaroni and cheese, grits, collard greens and warm peach cobbler. Also available are scrambled eggs, baked instead of fried; bacon and ham; and potatoes and onions cooked in bacon fat.

While everything tasted fine, some things seemed a bit tired, possibly from too much time on the steam table.

The chicken with its sweetish barbecue sauce was cooked until tender and falling off the bone, yet it was still quite moist. The chopped sirloin, heavy with onions, tasted like a nicely spiced meatloaf that had been cooked too long.

The traditional salad bar, included with the buffet, offered a green salad, a bean salad, a fruit salad, pickled watermelon rind, hot peppers and a very nice potato salad loaded with chopped egg and celery.

Finally, there was a huge, steaming pan of spiced peach cobbler.

We ordered from the menu the second time around and found the food to be better when it was cooked to order. The menu also offers barbecued ribs -- good, meaty ones that aren't available at the buffet. At $5, the rib "sandwich" is certainly one of the best values. It consists of five huge ribs in a thick, mild, slightly sweet sauce with several slices of bread served on the side. A bottle of hot sauce is thoughtfully provided on each table to adjust the flavor.

The crab cake platter, a bargain at $6.50, consisted of two large deep-fried patties of shredded crab seasoned with minced green pepper and a dash of flaked red pepper.

We also liked the butterfly shrimp ($6.50 for about eight large shrimp), which were barely coated in batter before deep-frying.

Order a platter and you can choose among six vegetables including potatoes and coleslaw. The collard greens are stewed southern style with chopped onion and smoky bacon. Likewise the green beans. The french fries were cut medium-thin, cooked till crisp and served in copious quantities. The coleslaw never showed up, but by the time we noticed, we were too full to complain.

The decor is plain and more reminiscent of a small restaurant than a diner. There are only 10 tables. A TV, set in one linoleum-covered wall, was tuned to the wrestling match during one visit and a baseball game during another. Black-and-white photographs of jazz artists hang on the walls, along with No Smoking signs.

To reach the dining room, you pass through a front room with benches and an old-fashioned pastry case that shows off cupcakes and several kinds of pies. We tried apple and sweet potato, both competent renditions with sweet, flavorful fillings but somewhat tasteless crusts. Meanwhile, the cinnamon-spiked peach cobbler cried out for fresh peaches.

Fresh fruit came to mind, partly because the diner is only blocks from the D.C. Open-Air Farmers' Market. You could certainly do worse than shopping for fresh corn and tomatoes in the late morning, then lunching in the air-conditioned comfort of the River Terrace Diner.