While much of Washington looked like a ghost town yesterday, at the Steak 'N' Egg Restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue, it was standing room only.

There, where the taste of hash browns persists on your palate and the odor clings to your clothes, a most eclectic group had gathered for a holiday brunch -- brought together by the mutual search for an open restaurant on Christmas.

There was John the fireman, about to go on the 4 p.m. shift, who always volunteers to work Christmas so the married guys can have off. The two Korean students from American University, who said they really "didn't think of today as Christmas." Tim and Billy, the bearded roofers who'd spent the afternoon cruising around and drinking beer. The street bum who ordered a glass of water, then stood staring out the window.

And, of course, there was Ruth the cook, finishing up her 13th year with the company, who'd call "Come right in," to her customers while digging out lumps of hash from a large can with an ice cream scooper and flipping over fried eggs in a small frying pan.

It was David Leinoff's second Christmas in a row at the Steak 'N' Egg.

"Where else can you get this atmosphere?" he asked as he sat at the narrow counter and watched two steaks sizzle on the steamy grill.

Leinoff says he has been a Steak 'N' Egg fan since his days at American University. Sometimes, on weekdays when the regular Chinese cook is in, he doesn't even have to place his order. The cook, he says, knows he's strickly a "Paul Bunyon special" man -- three eggs any style, three strips of bacon, extra toast and coffee.

Leinoff spoke fondly of Christmas past at Steak 'N' Egg. "Last year, I played this song on the jukebox by the group Meatloaf -- 'Paradise By the Dashboard Light.' All these country types were in here and they really started getting into it."

This year, the jukebox was broken -- a paper napkin stuffed in the coin receiver to prevent people from putting their money in.

John the fireman spoke of how the place reminded him of the story "A Clean Place" by Sartre.

"You mean 'A Clean, Well-lighted Place' by Hemingway?" someone asked him.

"Yeah, year, that's the one . . . the one about the old man who always goes to the same restaurant."

In the past, the tiny establishment had been the culinary haven for a husband who, after quarrelling with his spouse, lost his seat at the family Christmas dinner.

This year, families crowded around the stools, which were much in demand. So much so that a fight nearly broke out over one disputed counter seat.

When the Korean student left his seat to make a phone call, Tim the roofer, in his short-sleeved Hawaiian print shirt, sat down in his place. After a few words were exchanged, Tim gallantly gave the Korean back his seat.

By 3 p.m., it was time for a shift change. Rita said she was going home to her family, who had cooked a Christmas dinner.

"Merry Christmas!" Rita called to everyone as she went out the door.

"Merry Christmas!" everyone called back. Except for one man who yelled joyfully," Here's tinsel in your eye."