A fire that may have been caused by careless smoking severely damaged the Omega Restaurant, a well-known restaurant in Adams-Morgan that has drawn a loyal following for almost three decades.

The intense fire, reported shortly after 2 a.m. yesterday, gutted the kitchen and caused heavy smoke and water damage to the rest of the building, a single-story brick structure at 1856 Columbia Rd. NW.

Yesterday afternoon, almost 12 hours after the fire was reported, stunned workers mourned what they said was a unique business, one that grew from a meeting place for Cuban expatriates in the 1960s to a fine ethnic restaurant.

Aside from achieving almost landmark status in this polyglot neighborhood, the Omega Restaurant drew a loyal work force in an industry marked by itinerant service. Of the 15 workers, most have worked there for at least five years and a handful are veterans of a decade or more of service. Now they are unemployed.

Humberto Flores, from El Salvador, began working in the kitchen almost 20 years ago, graduated to waiter and most recently was general manager. Patricio Yelicie, an Argentinian, has been a waiter for 16 years. The cross section of immigrants also included Chileans, Bolivians and Puerto Ricans.

"It's like a family, people worked here for so long," said Luis Santiago, a waiter.

The fire was first reported at 2:02 a.m. by someone who pulled an alarm. The first firefighters on the scene requested additional help, and the fire was put out at 2:51 a.m. The cause is still under investigation, but the preliminary cause is "discarded smoking material," said Capt. Ted Holmes.

The restaurant had closed as usual at 10 p.m., but workers remained to clean up for several more hours, employees said. The owner of the business, Lerida Baldo, heard about the fire yesterday on the 6:30 a.m. news and was so upset she did not show up yesterday.

The current owners bought the restaurant about 20 years ago from another Cuban, Enrique Baez. Before that, the restaurant was owned by a Hungarian refugee who opened it in the late 1950s. In 1970, while it was owned by Baez, the restaurant was firebombed. Further details on that incident were unavailable yesterday.

There were no estimates on the extent of the damage, but the owners said they would rebuild. In the meantime, the employees plan on searching for work until the restaurant reopens.

"We'll be back. You just don't close a place like this down. This restaurant has a tremendous following," said Robert Baldo, the owner's son.