This column marks the debut of a new food feature in the Extra. Longtime Washington Post reporter and editor Nancy Lewis, a gourmet cook and owner of about 700 cookbooks, will regularly write features and restaurant reviews.

Political yard signs fill the tiny patch of grass in front of Jennifer's Restaurant in downtown Frederick, and dozens more are stacked just inside the doorway, available for the taking.

In recent years, this unpretentious restaurant -- with a bar in front, a dining room in the back and Irish pub fare -- has emerged as the area's main Democratic pit stop.

Although the townhouse has been home to eateries for a century, it took Jennifer P. Dougherty, who happens to be mayor of Frederick, to transform it into a political hangout.

"I was the one who turned up the news at 5 p.m. and made people listen to all the speeches during political conventions," Dougherty said with a laugh. That was long before she upset a two-term Republican incumbent last year.

Dougherty said her restaurant is a place for "Democrats, Republicans and Independents." But Republicans, who outnumber Democrats in the county about 4 to 1, favor Tauraso's Restaurant, a more upscale Italian place at the other end of town.

Observers say traditional political gathering places such as Jennifer's are disappearing, displaced by TV and e-mail, the Internet and a disdain for making deals behind closed doors. Today's political conversations are likely to occur over breakfast or lunch rather than in a bar after work or late at night.

"It's a way to fit in a meeting that you wouldn't be able to get into your schedule any other way," said Matthew A. Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University professor who has studied Maryland political institutions for more than three decades.

For mealtime meetings, politicians in every jurisdiction across the Washington area have favorite locales. Most are near government buildings in almost forgotten downtowns, away from bustling strip malls and shopping centers that are the centers of commerce.

In Fairfax County, the main gathering place is the cafeteria in the county office building. The government office park has no restaurants.

Few of the breakfast and lunch stops across the region are known for high culinary achievement. Most feature burgers and salads and sandwiches or hot-plate lunches, all of which can be served quickly.

"We usually have very little time between our executive session and the public meeting," said Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She always orders chili -- "the hotter the better" -- and soft frozen yogurt. "I like the yin and yang," she said.

Crenson attributes the demise of traditional political hangouts -- private clubs or bars in which people gathered in the evening for political bargaining -- to a general decline in what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls "third places."

"Third places are not work and not home -- something like a bar or a club, a place where people go to socialize," Crenson explained.

Sunset Restaurant and Lounge in Glen Burnie, a glorified New Jersey-style diner specializing in seafood and Italian dishes, was once such a gathering place for politicos in Anne Arundel County. Owner Otts Fratt said that has changed in recent years. Once, there was a table where regulars gathered, "but we don't have too many any more," he said. "Now they come in for dinner, individually, with their wives."

Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia government professor and an authority on Virginia and national politics, believes that modern technology is partly to blame for the demise of the political watering hole. "I think for better or worse . . . You can get a lot more business done . . . with a few e-mails.

"But not as much gossiping gets done," he lamented. "That's the fun of politics. Who gossips on e-mail?"

In suburban Northern Virginia, Sabato believes, the dearth of political watering holes is also a reflection of the good government ethic.

"If there is one part of Virginia that is pure good government," it's the Northern Virginia suburbs, he said. "They don't like drinking, they don't like smoking, they don't like the dirty deals of politics."

When they have a bit more time, Fairfax County board members trek to nearby restaurants such as Tia's Tex-Mex and Romano's Macaroni Grill. "We do a lot of other eating together, at functions such as Volunteer Fairfax. We know hotels," Bulova said, citing the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner, the Fairview Park Marriott and the Sheraton Premiere at Tysons Corner.

When it's time for fundraisers, Sabato said, Northern Virginia politicians favor big-name restaurants around Tysons Corner: The Capital Grille, Sam and Harry's, The Palm and Clyde's.

In Leesburg, the courthouse and government crowd gathers most mornings at Johnson's Charcoal Beef House at the edge of downtown, where guns provide the motif and fried foods provide the heft.

For lunch, it's Leesburg Restaurant, cater-cornered from Loudoun County Courthouse. Lawyers convene at the big table in the back on the left. Peanut soup -- thick and chock-full of peanut bits -- is the house specialty, milkshakes are assembled soda-jerk style and the luncheon pork chop special on a recent day went for $6.

More formal occasions, such as a Madeleine Albright meeting with a foreign dignitary or a major fundraiser, are usually held at Tuscarora Mill, a grain mill moved to its present location and opened as a restaurant in 1984. "Tuskie's," as locals call it, boasts an eclectic menu that includes Thai and Portuguese as well as Cuban and Mexican items amid seafood and steaks.

The deli or diner breakfast meeting is an early morning Montgomery County specialty. The recently reopened Tastee Diner in Bethesda, closed during primary season because of a June fire, is the most popular destination.

"The Tastee Diner in Bethesda, Woodside Deli, Parkway Deli, the Silver Diner at the Mid-Pike Shopping Center in Rockville, I go to all of those," Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said. "I like to eat."

For lunch, Montgomery politicians for years have favored nearby Taste of Saigon, a few blocks north of the county government building that anchors downtown Rockville. Some allegiances have shifted to Tara Asia, which is new, adjacent to the courthouse and overlooks its parking entrance. Gansler described it as "very good but not expensive, where you can have a conversation of substance."

Lunch in Montgomery begins about 11:30 and peaks about noon, at least an hour before prime lunching hours in the District or even Southern Maryland. Breakfast meetings in Montgomery begin as early as 7.

Prince George's officials often complain that their county has no big-name steak emporiums. But their favorite place, Jerry's Seafood, a nondescript-looking place nearly 20 miles from the government administration building in Upper Marlboro, has probably the best food in the county and perhaps the best crab in the Washington area.

Jerry's has no tablecloths, no A-list seating, no fancy china, not even a place to stand while waiting for one of the two dozen tables. But succulent cream of crab soup and signature "crab bomb" and "baby bomb" -- mounds of giant lumps bound with the silkiest of sauces and lightly browned -- are reason enough to endure waits as long as two hours.

Politicians don't have to wait. They are usually seated immediately.

Elected officials in the outer suburbs rarely venture more than a block or two from the local courthouse.

In St. Mary's County, Do Dah Deli is the place for breakfast and Cafe des Artistes and Nook & Monks Restaurant & Theatre are lunch favorites, all on the main town square in Leonardtown. In Howard County, the courthouse lunch crowd gathers at Judge's Bench Pub, just down the hill from the courts in Ellicott City.

In Prince William, locals breakfast at Marie's Cafe, six blocks from the courthouse in Manassas, and on Thursdays when the Board of County Supervisors meets, lunch is usually four blocks away at Hero's American Restaurant and Bar.

Pancakes Plus in downtown La Plata is such a local political institution that on the day in December 2000 that former Charles County commissioner Marland Deen was indicted on charges related to stealing county gasoline, most of his colleagues were huddled in the back dining room.

Like Jennifer's Restaurant, the front of Pancakes Plus is festooned with political yard signs, and one or more candidates is likely to drop by on any given day.

Owner Cindy Robertson said county officials usually gather in the dining room between 10:30 and 11 a.m. for early lunches. "They always seem to be in a hurry," Robertson said, explaining that they usually order the special -- on a recent day, ham-and-cheese omelet for breakfast and stuffed cabbage -- because it's already prepared and quicker.

When one dines alone, it's usually at the counter up front. Wherever officials sit, a constant stream of other regulars stop to chat, Robertson said.

Though the District, Arlington and Alexandria have a wide variety of restaurants and cuisines, their elected officials stick close to home, too. District Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) favors Occidental Grill and Les Halles, just across Pennsylvania Avenue NW from his office in the John A. Wilson Building.

Alexandria officials often gather at Majestic Cafe, just up King Street, at Pat Troy's Restaurant and Pub around the corner from City Hall or at the Holiday Inn next door for drinks. The Arlington crowd mostly eats takeout in the office.

Jennifer's Restaurant, too, is just a couple of blocks from the courthouse in Frederick. There, if you drop by for a beer after work, you might find the mayor -- waiting tables.

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Paul VanWagner, above left, of Rockville and Jerry Kickenson of Silver Spring eat breakfast last week at Woodside Deli in Silver Spring. At right, Frederick Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty, owner of Jennifer's Restaurant, stands in an alcove in the eatery where politicians place campaign signs that customers can take to display at their homes or businesses.Tara Asia is recommended by Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler.