Cafe Luna

1633 P St. NW

387-4005

Hours: 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Prices: Breakfast (served all day) $1.25 to $2.95; sandwiches and salads $2.95 to $5.95, entrees $4.25 to $6.75 at lunch and dinner.

Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

No separate nonsmoking area in dining room.

A new cafe just off 17th Street already is bustling with crowds drawn to this small, lively place by its simple fare, low prices and friendly service.

Cafe Luna, on P Street between 16th and 17th streets NW, calls itself a "coffee shop." But this bright and airy restaurant offers more than your average lunch counter. There are wholesome sandwiches and salads, a lengthy list of earnest, if uneven, pasta dishes and some delicious pizza. There also are several killer desserts, including a pecan pie that would make Agent Cooper of "Twin Peaks" fame cross state lines.

In the increasingly upscale restaurant strip that is developing along 17th Street between Massachusetts and New Hampshire avenues, Cafe Luna is particularly welcome for its prices. A nine-inch pizza is $4.50, plus 75 cents a topping. Salads are $3.75 to $5.95, and the most expensive pasta, agnolotti, is $6.75.

That being said, don't go to Cafe Luna for cutting-edge cuisine. This is a place for "home cooking" -- not the kind your grandmother made but the kind you used to make yourself, back when you had the time.

Consider, for example, Cafe Luna's veggie lasagna and veggie parmigiana. The latter is fettucine with cheese and the vegetables du jour -- the night we sampled, they were garlic-infused tomatoes and eggplant. The lasagne was unpretentious, not very heavy or rich, and obviously homemade.

This is a folksy place. There's a bookcase crammed with reading material for anyone who craves a little quality time.

For those in the mood for socializing, the music is low enough for talk and there's just enough surrounding conversation to create the feeling of a neighborhood gathering place.

Specials are posted on a blackboard, and breakfast is served all day. The selections for breakfast include muffins and breads, yogurt, cereal, an omelette-like frittata with vegetables ($2.95) and eggs any style. A daily special of poached eggs ($1.75) came on a huge slab of brioche and, again, reminded us of the way poached eggs turn out when we make them at home: a bit misshapen and tasting very faintly of a vinegar-spiked bath. We weren't in the market for the typical restaurant egg dish, drowned in a buttery hollandaise sauce, so we found this plain and inexpensive dish quite appealing.

A magnificent glass of fresh orange juice and perfectly brewed espresso completed the effect.

No appetizers are on the menu, although there is a soup that changes daily. We tried the gazpacho, which, while tasty, consisted mostly of pureed tomato.

The salads are unexceptional. They're of decent size and feature generous greens and vegetables, but they are a bit light on the meat or seafood and tend to come with a nest of alfalfa sprouts.

Pasta dishes are ample and presented very simply. Whatever your choice of noodle, it comes piled between two slabs of toasted white bread -- sometimes garlic flavored and sometimes not. Sauce choices include seafood, tomato and basil, sausage and cream, clam, pesto, cream and parmesan, butter and parmesan, and oil and pine nuts.

All have more heartiness than finesse. There was enough butter on the fettucine with butter and parmesan to open a bakery. A daily special of pasta primavera turned out to be a cheesy cream sauce over linguine with single stalks of broccoli and cauliflower.

The pizza, on the other hand, was carried off with aplomb. We enjoyed the white pizza with red peppers and sun-dried tomato, which we ordered without cheese in the interests of health but came nonetheless with just enough cheese to make us glad they had goofed. The thin, cheese-glazed crust was sprinkled with slivers of red pepper and pungent sun-dried tomato. Nine inches across, it was more than enough for one person.

An artichoke pizza also was delicious, with chunks of artichoke and slices of fresh tomato set against a white-cheese background.

House wines were of good quality and reasonable: $2.50 a glass and $6.50 for a small carafe. A small selection by the bottle ranged from $10.50 to $17.95. There also is a variety of beers, Elliott's juices and good coffees, including a rich decaffeinated espresso.

Desserts are provided by the accomplished firm known as Ms. Desserts. Along with the rich pecan pie, Cafe Luna offers a creamy Key lime pie and apple pie. Mud loaf ($2.75) is a slab of chocolate pound cake topped with fudge icing. We didn't try the "volcano," which comes in chocolate or peanut.

The staff is exceedingly friendly, if a bit overwhelmed and occasionally uninformed. The folksy-eclectic dining room is augmented in good weather by a few tables out front. Small tables are clad in beige vinyl with the name of the restaurant in purple; the chairs are uncomfortably straight-backed. It's nevertheless quite cozy, a lot like home.