15 MIN.

1030 15th St. NW

408-1855

Hours: 11 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday; 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday; 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Sunday.

Prices: Appetizers $3.25 to $6.95, salads and pizzas $4.50 to $10.50 at lunch; light fare $4.95 to $6.95 at dinner.

Cards: American Express.

No separate nonsmoking area.

Feeling blue about how tough it is to find decent pizza in this town? Here's some good news: A downtown punk nightclub with the mysterious name "15 Min." is drawing midday crowds for its first-class pizza. It has a chewy crust and comes with high-fashion toppings such as roasted peppers, squid and shiitake mushrooms.

The pizza, unfortunately, is available only at lunch, when it shares the menu with one Thai entree, some eclectic "starters" and several salads. Starting in midafternoon, pizza et al. disappear, replaced by a menu of Thai hors d'oeuvres.

Around 9 p.m. the food becomes almost irrelevant, as 15 Min. turns into a late-night spot for drinking and very loud music. By 10 p.m. the atmosphere was enough to make us youthful old fogies feel a little out of place.

But lunch at 15 Min. is definitely worth a visit -- for the food as well as the, well, novel decor. Picture all-black walls, punk waiters, carpeting that looks like it came from a bowling alley, plastic cutouts of martini glasses and green olives over the bar, and an enormous butterfly crafted from a rooftop TV antenna and suspended from the ceiling.

You need only examine the diverse crowd packing 15 Min. at lunch to know you're someplace special. Rockers mix with business-suited office workers and power couples in full costume. Service can be a bit disjointed, but it's friendly.

Among the pizzas, we particularly enjoyed "Three Mushrooms" ($8.50) and "Roasted Peppers" ($8.25). Each was big enough for two if supplemented with a salad.

The mushroom pizza was topped with a layer of fontina and mozzarella cheeses embedded with a generous portion of chanterelle, shiitake and oyster mushrooms. There was just a hint of tomato sauce on the crust.

The red pepper model, which came without tomato, offered a flavorful mix of mozzarella and raclette cheeses, garlic and perfectly roasted slices of green, yellow and red peppers. Its crust was a bit soggy in the middle but fantastic at the edges.

The lunchtime menu also offers soup, artichoke dip served with pita chips, barbecued shrimp and guacamole. Also available are above-average (in price as well as quality) salads and desserts.

For starters, the seafood gumbo with rice was fiery, thick and flavorful, though on the small side at $4.50 a cup ($5.95 a bowl).

The gazpacho ($3.25 a cup) and guacamole ($3.95) both came with tortilla chips and had lively seasonings and good flavor. The "tossed greens" -- a house salad -- seemed overpriced at $4.25 but featured watercress, lettuce and tiny mushrooms doused with a raspberry vinaigrette.

The beefsteak tomato salad also was on the steep side at $5.75 but would be the envy of any steakhouse. Chunks of pungent Gorgonzola cheese adorned thick slices of ripe tomato and Bermuda onion in a good vinaigrette flecked with bits of sun-dried tomato.

The duck in the braised duck salad ($8.50) looked as if it had been grilled. A generous serving came on a bed of watercress, endive and radicchio with a mild, sweet sauce served on the side. The sauce, which tasted of pureed prunes, complemented the duck but could have used a little pepper and vinegar for zest. The fancy bitter greens, meanwhile, cried out for vinaigrette.

Thai chicken salad and rice noodles ($5.95) turned out to be slivers of chicken coated with a hot and spicy sauce, accompanied by unadorned noodles and a raw mango salsa spiked with cilantro.

To chase this low-cal entree, consider one of 15 Min.'s heavy-duty, big-ticket desserts: a chocolate brownie topped with vanilla ice cream, hot fudge and whipped cream is $4.50; fresh berries with vanilla ice cream is an eye-opening $7.25.

Despite the uptown prices and fare, 15 Min. is not necessarily the kind of place to take an important client. The floor could use some Spic 'n Span, and the bathrooms could use some soap and towels.

When we dropped by one Friday night, none of this seemed to matter to the crowd of happy drinkers. Black lights glowed in the smoke-filled dining area, one wall was devoted to offbeat videos, and the deejay kept the loud, conversation-dashing tunes coming.

Around 10 p.m. a doorman began collecting a cover charge for a live band that was assembling in a side room.

Contributing to the surrealistic atmosphere is a large, work-a-day cafeteria next door that operates independently during the day but becomes part of the bar at night. People wander into one of three spaces in the cafeteria, where there are pockets of relative quiet and plenty of room for hanging out.

The night we were there, one side room had a sign over the door identifying it as a "coffee house." It functioned as a reminder that 15 Min. has a sense of humor about itself -- in case you hadn't noticed.