BY THE TIME of his death this week at 84, his family name was in lights on hotels all over the country, and the business venture he had launched with a tiny lunch counter in Washington nearly 60 years ago had grown into an immense restaurant and hotel enterprise. He was a friend of Republican presidents and a philanthropic pillar of his Mormon church.

Pardon us, then, for taking a slightly parochial view of J. Willard Marriott when we point out that with him died another bit of small-town Washington. Mr. Marriott's Hot Shoppes (that was the name of his lunch counter, and it was carried over to the restaurants that followed) were something of a dominant institution here for many years when there weren't nearly so many restaurants, and most of those we did have weren't the sort that got rated on such things as their ambiance.

The Hot Shoppes featured American cooking before American cooking became chic. They had a menu that rarely changed and didn't need to because the food was always pretty good as it was. They were the place where families went for Sunday dinner, partly for the food and partly because of the people who worked there: a little more polite, attentive and thoughtful than at other places. (Some travelers say this is still true of employees in the Marriott hotels.)

For a long time they had a children's menu featuring dinner for 75 cents. Graduation from it at age 12 was part of growing up here in the 1940s and '50s. Another was cruising the drive-in lots of the Hot Shoppes in weirdly "customized" Chevys and Mercurys in pursuit of attention, diversion and the famous double-decker hamburger known as the Mighty Mo (well-established long before the Big Mac was ever dreamed of). When people of a certain age who grew up in Washington or one of the tranquil burgs on its borders (Arlington, Bethesda, Hyattsville) encounter one another and begin reminiscing, they almost always find they have in common the Hot Shoppes drive-in, the Mighty Mo and the ambience that surrounded it, including onion rings. Like the small-town soda jerk, the Hot Shoppes suffered the antics of the town's teen-agers with fairly good humor, and made some money off them too.

A community's merchants give it much of its character. And the quality of its individual businesses reflect the quality of those who are responsible for them. Washington's warm recollection of the Hot Shoppes institution is a tribute to Mr. Mariott. For many years his little chain of restaurants helped give this capital something of the flavor of a courteous, pleasant, overgrown village before he became a towering business figure and the city also went on to bigger things.