Neon Cafe

Carlyle Suites Hotel

1731 New Hampshire Ave. NW


Hours: 7 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week.

Prices: Appetizers $3.50 to $5; sandwiches $4.95 to $8.95; entrees $6.95 to $12.95.

Cards: All major credit cards accepted.

No separate nonsmoking area.

For those of you who collect secrets, add the Neon Cafe to your list.

Here is a restaurant so well concealed that you can find it only if you stumble into the lobby of the Carlyle Suites Hotel, which is unlikely because the hotel is on a quiet residential street.

You might hear about it from a friend, but that also is unlikely because it has been open only a few months.

Hidden on the far side of a faithfully restored Art Deco lobby, the Neon isn't even announced until you're well past the hotel's front door.

Go anyway, if you are near Dupont Circle and looking for a quiet, pleasant place for a drink or meal.

The food is nothing special, but it is well priced, and the Neon's atmosphere is friendly and inviting.

A band of hot pink neon encircling the irregularly shaped dining room just below the ceiling is the cafe's signature.

So are the chairs, which look a lot like the ones you had in your breakfast room if you grew up in the 1950s.

This is a smallish restaurant, with fewer than a dozen tables and seats for only nine at the bar. But the room is shaped to offer diners a bit of privacy, and from some tables it is impossible to see who is sitting at most of the others.

This is not a fancy restaurant, either in atmosphere or food. Entrees come with a plate of slightly stale sliced bread and pats of butter. But entree portions are ample, and platters come with vegetables, rice or potatoes and an above-average green salad. Sandwiches come with chips and a pickle.

The menu is limited and offers no appetizers apart from a soup of the day, and no desserts.

But half orders of pasta are available at half price, and these were well prepared if undistinguished.

The Neon, which opens at 7 a.m. for breakfast, also offers "eggs all day" with bacon or ham, home-fried potatoes and toast, at $5.95.

The onion soup ($1.75 a cup, $2.75 a bowl) had the obligatory thick layer of stretchy cheese and chunks of bread, enclosing a deep brown stock that tasted anything but homemade but was thick with onions.

The West Coast pasta ($7.95) was a nicely spiced thin tomato sauce on linguine with a variety of just cooked, crunchy vegetables, including broccoli, green beans and asparagus.

The Manhattan goulash ($6.95) consisted of tube pasta in a hearty meat and tomato sauce. The dish was substantial but unsubtle -- kind of like the spaghetti your mom made if she wasn't Italian.

The Fettuccine Alfredo ($6.95) of pasta in a cream and parmesan cheese sauce was bland and lacking a recognizable parmesan flavor.

The Chicken Italiano ($8.95) was a thick, boneless double chicken breast topped with provolone cheese and tomato sauce. The chicken was moist and cooked till just tender and juicy.

Entrees on platters came with a side order of sauteed broccoli, green beans and squash and some delicious home fried potatoes that were crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

A roasted chicken entree ($9.95) is described on the menu as a half of a "free-range chicken." What came was boned chunks that seemed to have been roasted and then sauteed. Were they breast meat or thigh? If reassembled, would they really have made half a chicken? Who knows? But the meat was plump with natural juices, and the cooking, whatever the mode, prevented it from drying out.

The ribeye steak dinner ($11.95) offered a generous portion of boneless meat, cut thin, pan-fried, tender and cooked on the rare side of medium rare. It could have been better trimmed. It also could have used some salt and pepper.

The "chicken burger" was a pleasant surprise. It consisted of an enormous double chicken breast that seemed to have been cooked exactly the right amount on a grill. Its $7.95 price tag put it at the high end of the burger spectrum. But served on a crunchy french roll and accompanied by a thick slice of pungent raw onion, a slice of tomato, lettuce, potato chips and a large pickle slice, the dish turned out to be a far more satisfying meal than your average restaurant burger.

The dinner salad was on the small side but featured a better-than-average mix of romaine lettuce, shredded carrot and tomato in a herbed mayonnaise dressing.

No desserts are listed on the menu. When we asked for some, the waiter on one visit told us all he had on hand were a few blueberry muffins left over from breakfast. Another time, there was a single small piece of cheesecake left from lunch, which the waiter offered at no charge.

The cafe offers a full bar, including Beck's dark beer on tap at $3.25 and Robert Mondavi table wines at $3.25 a generous glassful.

To live up to its cafe pretensions, the Neon would do well to install an espresso machine, add a few more entrees and some chocolate desserts to the menu and hang out a shingle on New Hampshire Avenue. At present, it remains mainly a place for hotel guests and nearby neighbors to enjoy a casual meal.