Farther south of the Mason-Dixon line, they just love "Hooters." In fact, a bevy of imitators there is following the lucrative lead of the Atlanta-based chain of restaurants in which mostly male crowds ogle barely clad waitresses.

"Melons," "Knockers," "Mugs & Jugs." Why, those Florida-based restaurant chains were all "just copycats," scoffed Ed Droste, one of the co-founders of Hooters. "Sincerest form of flattery, I guess."

But in Baltimore, outraged feminists and some city officials say the restaurant puts a smudge on the city's squeaky-clean Inner Harbor, where the first of several Hooters restaurants planned for the Washington area opened in late October.

"When we voted for Harborplace, they promised us it would be the jewel of Baltimore," said Ann Corcoran, of the Baltimore chapter of National Organization for Women. "Forty-second Street in New York is what they promised us it would NOT look like."

Seeming a bit embarrassed to now be leading the charge against the restaurant, Baltimore City Council President Mary Pat Clarke called her request that Hooters change its "sexist" garb, signs, menus and hiring practices "very moderate."

"Let's not help Hooters and hurt women by making this look like some kind of Carry Nation thing," she said.

But Hooters management says that it will neither move nor change its restaurant -- that Hooters just wouldn't be Hooters without the bare midriffs, the skintight tank tops, the short-shorts and the hula hoop demonstrations on request.

"We feel very strong convictions about the key elements of our concept," said Droste, of Clearwater, Fla. Which are?

"We sell, I wouldn't deny it, the girls," he said. "They're cute. They're vivacious. It's the California-surfer-girl look."

Critics say they object not only to the atmosphere -- more cheery and wholesome than a strip joint, more fleshy than a cheerleading squad -- but also to its location amid the throngs of stroller-pushing tourists. (Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer's famous dip in the aquarium's seal tank is as risque as things usually get there.)

"This is what tourists see," Clarke said. "This is where they form their impressions of Baltimore."

Anyone who wandered into the Baltimore Hooters on Tuesday would have seen a roomful of male patrons (there were four women diners in a room seating 175) generally demonstrating the difficulty of eating chicken wings and ogling at the same time. Some smirked, red-faced, and sneaked their peeks; others beamed and gawked unabashedly.

"They have some -- ahh -- healthy girls here," said a sharply dressed man who described himself as an insurance executive. Asked about charges that the restaurant exploits women, he said, "Hey, they're not here because they're brain surgeons."

"My daughter, I would never let her waitress here," said patron Ron Shadoff, of Reisterstown, Md. "As a spectator, I enjoy it, but, whooo hooo, it's a thin line between this and show bars."

"That's hypocritical," said patron Phillip Sarris. "We're just appreciating their attractiveness."

A waitress who declined to give her name said: "It's an okay place to work if you don't take it too seriously and realize you're not going to work here forever."

Double-entendres are the lifeblood of Hooters. Consider its name and its logo, in which the two O's could be construed as owl eyes or breasts. "Hey, it's our shtick, it works," said Baltimore Hooters manager Gary McCully.

Why doesn't Hooters get some credit for its other attractions, he asks, such as its chicken wings and its charitable works? The country's 45 Hooters restaurants contribute toward medical research, for example.

Perhaps the objections stem from items such as the chain's 1990 calendar, quotes from which left NOW members reeling: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me" and "What does Karen have in common with a $12.98 watch? They're both cheap and a little fast."

"We cross over the line. We try not to jump over the line," said Droste, who advises NOW to "lighten up."

One line the chain crossed made it guilty of bias, according to the Pasco County, Fla., Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It ruled that the chain's policy of not hiring male servers is discriminatory.

Meanwhile, foes of the Baltimore Hooters are getting no support from the Rouse Co.

The long-term lease the city grants Rouse to operate Harborplace prohibits any "disreputable or immoral" uses. And Rouse, the developer of nearby Columbia, says it hasn't breached that lease.

"On the weekend, the restaurant is full of families," said Kate Delano, Harborplace public relations director. "We think Hooters is a good restaurant." She noted that the Baltimore branch "does a wonderful business."