At a quarter to seven on a near-Arctic January morning, Mike Rudzki, meticulously attired in his company-issue brown pants and shirt, stalks the stainless steel kitchen at McDonald's Restaurant on Rockville Pike checking the night crew's cleanup job and switching on six fryers, three toasters and a couple of grills. A scar marks a spot on his arm where he has habitually singed himself on the lip of the warming bin where the "product" -- as the company calls its food -- awaits the hordes.

McDonald's on the Pile is such a familiar sight to any passing motorist that it is easy to forget how remarkable the store and its neon-and-asphalt counterparts first seemed when they sprouted at suburban intersections a generation ago, or what a boggling blend of planning, technology and marketing went into them.

Neither Rudzki, one of four assistant managers, who barks out the bromides the company lives by such as, "If you have time to lean you have time to clean." But live by them they do, presiding over one thriving outpost of a fast-food empire that now ranks as the largest food processing corporation in the world.

Once known mainly as a teen-agers' haunt, the Rockville Pike McDonald's is a place where commuters flash through for breakfast and mothers bring their broods for lunch. Soccer teams flock to the counter, along with retired people on fixed incomes, oil magnates and ne'er do-wells. Mike Connors, better known as TV detective Joe Mannix, pops in sometimes. Even churchgoers drop by after mass for a McDonald's hamburger, a fast-food scacrament paid out 35 billion times.

When it opened Jan. 6, 1960, it was a different place, as was Montgomery County. Customers strolled in and out of a "red and white," the company's chrome-and-tile prototype hamburger stand, straddled by a golden M. The store, fifth in the Washington region, the 241st in the nation, opened at a time when the Montgomery County school system was adding 5,000 students a year, and planners were mapping out malls, subdivisions and shopping centers on tracts of pastureland and woods. It bustled with business, but did not encompass so many kinds of people as now, being only a convenient, overlit carryout place, a juke joint without a jukebox.

But in the late 1960s, McDonald's moved to expand its stores from hamburger stands to "family restaurants," with larger parking lots, seats and tables, and much shrewd advertising about its commitment to "the community," a pitch that continues unabated to this day.

In 1974 the red and white stand assumed its present incarnation, with the requisite area for 100 seats and tables where families could spread out for a "McDonald's experience." A new mansard roof hid refrigeration equipment located on top of the building, and a crew room was included where employes could eat and watch more than 30 training films on subjects such as "Closing the Store," and "Tartar Sauce Preparation." The remodeled store eventually would sport a Ronald's Room fantasyland for kids. And hamberger prices would rise -- from 15 to 49 cents -- but the golden arches would fall, victims of zoning regulations.

Today, the pastureland fronting the Pike has been covered over by asphalt lakes and boxy malls, and the thoroughfare itself -- one of the most prized commercial stretches in Maryland -- is traveled each day by 50,000 cars. Store 241, one of 6,209 in 27 countries, earns close to $2 million a year, stays open 18 hours a day on weekends, and has a computer terminal to keep track of the inventory.

Each week, 21,000 customers funnel through, consuming 1,500 Egg McMuffins, 4,500 pounds of potatoes, 200 gallons of Coca-Cola, and 24,000 hamburgers. But lest Rockville's rural past be altogether drowned in a tacky tide of parking lots and Big Mac wrappers, the dector of McDonald's on the Pike, at the suggestion of company design consultants, features an "outdoor motif," which finds commemorative highlights in the restaurant's green plastic seats, organic hanging plants, and the lurid, lime-colored togs most employes wear -- a bucolic vision Thoreau himself could scarcely resist.

At 7:30 a.m., the store is not crowded. More early birds would be pecking on Egg McMuffins but for the fact that the store rests on the wrong side of the Pike to snare the work-bound stampede of commuters headed into Washington. As the company only moved into the breakfast market in 1973, the early morning traffic was not a faster in the sophisticated real estate decisions McDonald's make before choosing a location for a store. r

At 8:30, Skip Bryce, who began juggling hamburgers at McDonald's when he was 16, arrives for work. Now, at 34, he commands, in his low-key fashion, a fast-food strike force of 75, a first lieutenant in the company's military-style organization. His rawest recruit wears a Marine-style paper cap; above him the hierarchies progress through ranks of area supervisors, regional managers, all the way to the company's supreme commander, visionary, founder and five-star general, an 82-year-old, platitude-spouting salesman named Ray Kroc.

In the course of a day, as he helps his employes out during the crescendo known as the lunch "rush," Bryce's thoughts often dwell on McDonald's standards as set down in a two-volume tome called the Manual. The Manual occupies a prominent spot on a shelf above the manager's desk, for the Manual contains the gospel according to McDonald's

In the beginning, the word was standards. To this day no facet for running a McDonald's store escapes a yardstick. But even in a company that prides itself on its own statistics as much as McDonald's, more standards abound than anyone has ever cared to count.

"We have a prescribed way for every single thing we do," says McDonald's Stephanie Skurdy. "If I went through every booklet and manual, I'd be doing it for two weeks." A mere sample of the extent of the detail: windows will be washed every day; Big Macs will have five dabs of mustard; unsold burgers will be tossed out after 10 minutes; coffee will be served at 185 degrees; employes will wear shineable shoes; drink cups will be filled with ice to the bottom of the arch; Ronald McDonald will be the friendly clown all kids love.

The point in such obsessive pursult of standards is to produce food that tastes the same in Rockville as in San Bernardino or Singapore. If Ray Kroc were no mere mortal, genious sprang from his insight that by and large, people don't like surprises, especially when acquainting themselves with a hamberger. In its zeal for uniformity, McDonald's tries by way of machines and standardized practices to limit the baleful influence that moody humans can sometimes have on food.

The preparation of the hamburger, for instance, is much changed since Skip Bryce's salad days: 340-degree electric grills have replaced many of the more unevenly heated gas models. Once cooked fresh, the patties now come out of a freezer, frozen at -10 degrees. Cooks, perhaps never culinary stars, were reduced to bit players in 1978 when special timers were installed to tell them when to turn the product.

A run of meat goes down for 20 seconds on one side. The cook mashes the burgers onto the grill with a untensil called a sear tool, which looks like a pudgy cymbal and weighs about a pound. The timer beeps, and the meat gets flipped for 40 seconds on the other side. Beep. Then back to the first side for 20 more seconds. Beep and off. Catridges shoot on premeasured dosages of sauce; the buns, now browned in special toasters and not the grill, are dropped on, and the batch slid over to the bin where "production callers" encase it in foam boxes.

McDonald's tries to engineer almost everything that happens in the store. Even the minute or so at the counter that "window employes" at the counter share with customers is scripted for "maximum impact."

At the counter, as sleepy-headed customers stumble up, an Indian immigrant named Radhekrishman with brilliantined hair heeds a six-step sequence: (1) greet the customer, (2) take the order, suggesting a sale -- french fries for example, if a customer neglects to round out his hamberger and Coke as the company would like him to; (3) assemble the order; (4) present the order; (5) request payment; (6) thank the customer.

Radhekrishnan's colleagues have tagged him "Rad" much as they shorten cheeseburger to "cb" when bellowing a customer's order to the hands wrapping and stacking product and foam at the bin. Since he started working at McDonand's four months ago after his arrival in the United States, Rad has become something of an ethnologist.

"I like the different customers," he says. "I have made a study. If a customer's Mexican, he'll ask for ketchup and mustard. Mustard is the thing you see. Most Europeans want ice tea with lemon. If you're Taiwanese or Vietnamese, I can definitely say you will order fish. Black people ask for root beer and orange. In a nice suit, I can say they'll eat here because they don't want to spoil the suit. There are certain people who want Sweet'n Low. They are around 45. If you are fat, you are going to ask for fries and 10 ketchups."

Around 10 a.m., Bernard Hermann, a jowly, jug-eared man with spectacles and a fedora, edges up to Rad's station and squints uncertainly at the menu panels as if he has not yet seized on his heart's desire: Odd, especially because in the last four years, Hermann has almost never missed joining his wife Ann and another couple called the Wileys for fast food and repartee at McDonald's on the Pike.So much are the Hermanns creatures of routine that they once came by Thanksgiving Day -- only to discover the store closed. Old employes are familiar enough with the daily appearance of the Hermanns and the Wileys to make taking their orders a formality.

"Yessir?" says Rad, putting two Egg McMuffin, two coffees, and four creams on a tray. Perhaps because Hermann is so familiar, Rad has skipped the first of his six steps.

Hermann seems confused.

"Is that right, sir?"

"That's right," he coughs, sliding some McDonald's coupons across the counter, which entitled him to free Egg McMuffin. Coffee for "seniors" is on the company. Bernard Hermann, ex-New Yorker and manufacturer of ladies dresses, is 82.

"Come again, sir," Rad says, as if there is a danger of losing this most regular of customers.

Seated at a booth across from his wife Ann, who wears a tan pill-box hat, and perches stiffly on the bench with a bad back, Bernard Hermann launches on a hammy patter as he unwraps his brunch.

"You a married man? No? Good, sit down, you can talk to us.Any subject you want. As long as I get my way we'll get along very well. We're coupon customers. We buy the calendars they have for sale for 50 cents and clip out the coupons at the bottom. We save $30 a year. Up in our age bracket, you want to get your wife out of the kitchen, and you certainly don't want to get in it yourself."

The typical customer stays in McDonald's 20 minutes, perhaps because after 20 minutes only specially calloused humans could savor more time in the rock-ribbed seats. Still, the Hermanns usually idle hours away, but today, after one refill of coffee, they beg off, Bernard Hermann bowing grandly to the Wileys. "We always bow," he says, ambling toward the door.

Mystery shrouds other regulars. One paranoiac woman often wanders in from her wanderings along the Pike. Once when 40 children were romping around at one of the birthday parties (for which the Rockville Pike store is booked up several months in advance) the woman sidled up to the maintenance man and whispered, "All the kids are mine, but the government took them away."

By midmorning, a crowd builds, mostly high schoolers on lunch breaks and mothers in their late 20s and early 30s, toting young children. In front of the counter the lines are 1k-people deep. Behind it, at the fry station, the window, the grill, the bin, 20 employes scurry about in a carefully orchestrated frenzy, shouting out orders over a cacophony composed of babbling customers, sizzling meat, gurgling soft drink dispensers, and the rolling hiss of french fries being baptized in 340-degree oil.

Nearly all of the mothers, led by their young, head for a mural-walled fantasyland called Ronald's Room. located off the main seating area. Ronald's Room features outsized statues of McDonald's TV cartoon figures such as Mayor McCheese, a slightly nightmarish chimera with the body of a public official and the head of a cheeseburger, and a four-car toy train, in which 3-year-old Julie Raise is sitting, one car back from the engine.

Julie clasps a hamburger nearly as big as her face. From under the mixing-bowl haircut she beams at her mother. Her mother is named Rosalind, a smartly dressed Potomac resident, wedged knees to chin in the opposite train seat after a morning of shopping on the Pike with her preschooler.

"As soon as we walked in, this is where she wanted to go," the mother said. "She's been good all morning. It's the one place I know she'll eat, and it beats going all the way home for lunch."

Youngsters clamber over the train engine, and toddle around the roots of a tree with McDonald's desserts in the canopy and a goggle-eyed face in the trunk -- a "bad tree," Julie Raise says, because "it doesn't have a head like me." Chunks of hamburger meat lie on trays. In the caboose, 2-year-old Mitzi Williams licks an ice-cream cone under the contented eye of her mother Pat -- who quit taching to look after her, brings her to McDonald's four times a week, and gave her a Ronald McDonald doll for Christmas. "We come just to relax and enjoy the nice atmosphere," Pat Williams said. "When we travel she can spot the McDonald's arches. She calls it Roldoll. It's amazing how many little kids can recognize McDonald's."

Notwithstanding the company vision of itself as guardian of the modern family, McDonald's after dark is still a teen-agers' territory of love and pimples where drag races are set and "Cheap Trick" shrieks from tape decks in the parking lot.

After the sun goes down Friday and the basketball scores are history, station wagons, jalopies and sports cars screech into the parking lot, and the children of the suburbs pour forth. Within minutes a slow night erupts in bedlam. Cars are backed up on the Pike waiting to swing in, and the store is mobbed by a yammering, jean-clad swarm, 200 strong.

Marybeth Lavin transported a wagonload of excitable girlfriends; Brenda Lolihan nosed in at the wheel of the new Corvette her car-dealer-dad had laid on her for Christmas; skinhead wrestler Kenny Rahn roared up with his retinue, cruising in his "Lovemachine." The weekend's inaugural hour bewitched them all, with parties to hunt down, sweethearts to rustle up, and even hamburgers to gobble, although they didn't come to McDonald's simply to eat, not at 17, and it was Friday night, and you only live once.

Kenny Rahn's '65 Buick had metamorphosed into the "Lovemachine" as he piloted his pals, the otherwise wingles "Dragonflies," through the shade-tree precincts of Rockville and Gaithersburg, to McDonald's. Kenny has to wrestle on Saturday, so food isn't on his mind. He's 17, just started lifting weights and got the Band-Aid-covered cut on his head when a pin fell out of his barbells. He's joining his brother in the Marines soon, and looking for something in the meantime. "Guys come in here to look for girls," he says. "They tease you. We stare at 'em.We'll follow a group and when we get close, they'll split up. A lot of girls like to go out with guys with rich cars."

The Dragonflies punch the hinged Thank You flap on the cabinet that houses the garbage, look around a while, then, disgusted with the scene, buzz off.

"Where're you headed?"

"Oh, somebody's house, play pool or someting -- anywhere," Kenny says. The "Lovemachine," bereft of love, pulls out quietly past two police cars and a knot of skirmishing jocks, and vanishes.

The lights flick off at 1 a.m. on a frigid new morning. Saturday promises to be a big day for fathers trooping in with children, birthday parties, the season's teams -- and the continuing choreography of grilling, saucing, serving, eating, and moving on.

A few days earlier, some foreigners had stopped in at McDonald's on the Pike. A black Fleetwood limousine had glided up; a Nicaraguan chauffeur jumped out and flung the door back for a Belgain student named Karen Plancke. She wore pants, boots and a wolf-fur coat, and she turned heads. She had journeyed to America to study jornalism at the University of Maryland, and her father, with a campanion, had come, too -- to help his daughter set up life abroad.

Inside, they ordered and took seats, and when they had finished their Big Macs, french fries and apple pies, the trio chatted in Flemish and lingered over coffee, elegant and oddly at ease, as if they were seated in a posh cafe.

"I never went into a McDonald's until this trip," said her father. "So far I have been in three."

He seemed to take a bearing, surveyed the menu panels listing food that tastes the same in 27 countries, and the faces of Americans eating alone without self-consciousness. What a vulgar marvel! As much as an actual place to eat, McDonald's was a place in the mind, lodged through advertising and sheer ubiquity even in the thoughts of people who never would stop there. In its fashion it touched a very basic and perennially renewed longing for an orderly, predictable, unchanging world, and it met, albeit meagerly, that need for a safe haven, which all people on a journey share.

"McDonald's," the Belgian said. "It's proof of how funny the way of life is in America."

The Fleetwood appeared. The chauffeur ushered his charges inside. The limousine hesitated as traffic on the Pike flowed past, then swung out into the stream.