The conversation was a little deeper than "please pass the salt, please pass the pepper" for a group eating dinner on a chilly Wednesday evening in Bethesda.

Two circular tables at Outback Steakhouse were pushed together for a group of 10, men and women ages 20 to sixtysomething; another five dined at a rectangular table off to the side.

To look at them -- many of them professionals -- they were just a large group enjoying a meal together. But, in fact, they are much more than that.

"We are a dinner club for people who are a little offbeat," said club founder Pete Warner, 50, also known as Beatnik Pete, who calls his group the Bethesda Beatniks.

"We're your neighbors, we have families and children. We're poster children for the actual face of mental illness," said Warner, a self-employed businessman who has been dealing with a form of schizophrenia, called schizoaffective disorder, for more than two decades.

The dinner club, which started meeting about two years ago and is an offshoot of a local Depression and Related Affective Disorders Association support group, is for adults living with mental illness, everything including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. Members pay a $40 initiation fee (which covers mailings and brochures) and must adhere to the three basic rules: no hard drug use; no practicing alcoholics (recovering is welcome); and all members must comply with doctors' requests.

According to the 1999 Mental Health Report of the Surgeon General, about 2.6 percent of adults are seriously mentally ill. But there is little solidarity among the mentally ill, said Warner.

He wants to change that. It's a tough feat because socializing can be a challenging proposition for many suffering from mental illness.

"With bipolar illness, it's very hard to socialize. I'm more of an introvert," says 68-year-old Frank of Gaithersburg, a retired professional who asked that his last name not be used because of the stigma associated with mental illness.

Even though socializing doesn't come easy to him, less than an hour into his first Bethesda Beatniks dinner, Frank thought he would come again. "It's almost like an invitation to bring your isolation with you. I knew there wouldn't be judgment and I would be able to avoid status issues."

Exactly the point of the group that draws about 20 to 25 consumers and non-consumers alike to its bimonthly dinners, which are promoted as a "stigma-busting" way for those with mental illness to socialize.

Consumers, a word favored by mental health professionals because it carries no stigma, are people who use mental health services and usually medication. Non-consumers are people without mental illness, such as spouses, siblings and friends.

Esther Kaleko-Kravitz, executive director of the county's branch of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said the Bethesda Beatniks dinner club fills a void in the lives of mentally ill individuals. "It serves a very important need in the mental health community because it takes place in a stigma-free environment. Consumers want to have regular functioning lifestyles, and it fills that gap."

On this particular Wednesday evening, Bob Litman, a Rockville psychiatrist, was there to observe and participate. "What [Pete] is doing is really a good service. I'm interested in this because as psychiatrists, we have a tendency to see only what happens in the office. This is what happens in the real world."

Rockville social worker Liz Prochnik was also a first-timer. "There's added value to [the consumer] in a social setting like this" because the low-key, nonjudgmental environment helps provide the social element that those living with mental illness crave but often find difficult.

"It's very nice to be around people for whom your psychiatric background is just a fact of life. They don't judge you. It's just a fact," said a 48-year-old mother who eight years ago was diagnosed as bipolar.

"I am seriously mentally ill, but I am one of the lucky ones because the medication works perfectly," said the woman, who asked not to be identified. "I am very functional."

Luly Stegmaier is not as lucky. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia as a teenager, Stegmaier, 47, is unable to hold a job. She lives in Kensington with her older brother and his wife but takes computer and art classes three times a week "to prepare herself, skill-wise, for the day when she will be well enough to hold a job," said her brother, David Stegmaier.

"My mother thought it would be good for me to socialize," said Luly Stegmaier, whose given name is Louise. But the first time at the dinner club "was kind of overwhelming because you're in a restaurant without your family. But I like it. It's hard to find this kind of socialization. I look forward to seeing the same people all the time." Stegmaier has been attending the dinner club for about a year and a half.

David Stegmaier, 57, who occasionally dines with his sister and the Beatniks, is grateful for the dinners. "They have added a whole new part to her life. She now has a social life she didn't have before. There's no judgment. She's totally at ease because they are going through the same kind of hell she is going through."

On Saturday, Warner is coordinating a potluck cookout for consumers and their families at Great Seneca State Park in Gaithersburg. The cookout, to be held at the Bob White campsite, is open to the public and begins at noon. (For more information, call 301-279-2578.)

It is part of the group's stigma-busting mission.

"If I broke my left arm, people would say, 'oh, okay,' " said Richard, 62, of Glenmont, a retired electrical engineer who has obsessive-compulsive disorder. "But if you say you have a psychiatric illness, people still see that as a secret shame."

Pete Warner, above left, the organizer of Bethesda Beatniks, chats with Luly and David Stegmaier. Below, Warner sports his trademark cigar and beret.