While there may be no such thing as a free lunch, dinner is another matter entirely—at least Monday through Friday from roughly 4 ’til 8 o’clock. Happy-hour buffets make it possible to dine out for almost nothing five nights a week, if you know where to go and you don’t mind occasionally eating off Styrofoam.

I’m not complaining, but the concept—setting out large, free, and temporarily bottomless supplies of goodies for customers already paying sale prices on drinks—has always struck me as fiscally retarded. So I ask the bartender at the Madhatter, where I’ve just finished off my fourth plate of pro bono tacos, “Who are you trying to kid?”

“Our job is to get you drunk,” he says. “If we’ve got to feed you to do it, we’ll feed you to do it.”

When I attack the financial reasoning behind giving away hot dogs on Mondays, tacos on Tuesdays, chicken wings on Wednesdays, and pizza on Fridays (Thursdays are half-price appetizers), he points out that we’re not talking about prime rib here and briefly explains to me a crude equation whereby the relatively low costs of bulk alcohol and ground beef make for goodwill to all. It’s funny, then, watching vegetarians build meatless tacos of lettuce, raw onion, and cheese that has been out for too long—they’re only eating what might cost them a dime or two to make at home. But it isn’t long before I’m ordering another beer and hitting the buffet again, feeling warm inside, knowing that I’m participating in one of those rare capitalist endeavors in which nobody gets screwed. The equation works its magic.

Most of the District’s free-food action happens downtown, where the bars and restaurants need to attract the working stiffs before they go home and leave the streets vacant. The typical spread, such as the ones offered at The Meeting Place, the Madhatter, or the neighboring Sign of the Whale, involves large preparations of serve-yourself bar food presented on a folding table. Admittedly, it’s a far from glamorous way to get your fill, and the absence of a sneeze guard can be a problem.

So while the “Italian stir fry” that Samantha’s serves from 5-8 p.m. on most Mondays and Tuesdays isn’t totally free (it costs a measly 50 cents per plate), it’s worth it to have a cook who makes up each plate to order. Operating with an ad hoc kitchen set up over a portable burner, the chef quickly combines choices of mushrooms, tomatoes, zucchini, olive oil, broccoli, bacon, garlic, and marinara or parmesan sauce in a pan with some penne. What results isn’t necessarily pretty, but it beats the hell out of hot dogs.

The trickiest part of happy-hour dining is the timing; it’s crucial to tap into the rhythms of the replenishing crew so as not to get stuck with a plate of picked-at goods when there might be fresh stuff on the way. Nowhere is this more necessary than at Ciao Baby Cucina, an Italian and Mediterranean restaurant whose bar has the best truly free happy-hour buffet we found (Monday through Friday from 5 until around 7:30 p.m.). The crowd here is tony, so much so that I notice people actually ordering from the menu what they could get for free at the antipasto counter. But most people who test the capacity of this small, blond-colored bar are here for the free spread, which varies according to the whims of the chef: cold marinated assortments of beans, garlicky pastas with vegetables, a snappy Indian-style rice dish with apple slices and carrots, splendid white pizzas of all different varieties, mostly vegetarian. At the peak hour the food goes fast, and it’s interesting to watch the competition as beautiful people try to segue gracefully from polite conversation into a mad scramble for nourishment. It’s almost enough just to sit and observe from the bar, where bowls of peppers and olives and, if you ask, baskets of fresh bread take the place of beer nuts.

The fare at Cafe Parma’s antipasto buffet is similar to that at Ciao Baby’s, although Parma’s pizzas tend to have more character; one with andouille, onion, and garlic is a standout. The crowd, however, is thinner and less animated. On election night, the place feels downright lonely, with a glumness hanging in the air that isn’t relieved even by one of my favorite dishes: a sassy mixture of plump marinated mushrooms mixed with garlic, red peppers, and onions. It is, of course, happy hour, so there’s always the chance of lonesome souls uniting. I’m charmed by the assertiveness of the woman who approaches a man at the bar with a decent enough pickup line: “Chain smoking?” But awkwardness prevails: The guy doesn’t speak English, and the woman’s momentum is broken by having to spend the next 15 minutes trying to explain what she said with her hands.

Eating for free can take on a certain nobility if you imagine you’re dining among hearty, downtrodden souls. Which isn’t all that hard, especially at Sign of the Whale, where the bartender greets one patron, “So, Jimmy, are you going to jail?”

You aren’t likely to hear such talk at the Watergate Hotel’s Potomac Lounge, where the kitchen sets out an elegantly laid table of caviar on Tuesday evenings, sushi on Wednesdays, and a lavish spread of salmon on Thursdays. It’s easily the most exquisite buffet food I’ve ever had outside a wedding.

The people lounging around us on a Friday, a night dubbed “simply jazz,” look chiseled, like statues, and I’m glad I decided to wrestle on a tie. The buffet is full of treasures: flaky phyllo pastries; rich horseradish, cilantro, and red pepper sauces; wicked salmon and artichoke mousses; juicy chicken breasts; platters of pungent cheeses and fresh fruits and vegetables. Melt into the plush furniture, relax to the new-agey stylings of the piano player, let the absurdly attentive waiters treat you like an ambassador, and it won’t take long for you to forget this is no typical happy hour. We read the fine print on the table display and find out that what we thought was a free buffet actually costs five bucks. Given the food, it’s still a fabulous deal. So we order some more martinis, which are not. The tab for five drinks and two unlimited buffets is over 50 bucks. So much for goodwill.

Cafe Parma, 1724 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 462-8771.

Ciao Baby Cucina, 1736 L St. NW. (202) 331-1500.

Madhatter, 1831 M St. (202) 833-1495.

The Meeting Place, 1100 17th St. NW. (202) 293-7755.

Samantha’s, 1823 L St. NW. (202) 223-1823.

Sign of the Whale, 1825 M St. NW. (202) 785-1110.

Watergate Hotel, 2650 Virginia Ave. NW. (202) 965-2300.

Hot Plate:

I’ve witnessed my share of hysteria, but I never really knew wrath until I was confronted by a pizza-lover scorned. Since the airing of my opinions on the state of the local slice trade (11/8), Y&H’s phone-mail has been recording outrage. Only a fool, said one woman, could consider Armand’s slice anything less than divine. Another came close to charging treason for judging pizza by the slice and not the pie: “Would you judge the quality of this country from just one visit to L.A.?” But mostly folks just wanted to get in their two bits about the vast number of pizza joints that were ignored. The best advice came from a fan of Alario’s, a place he says, “makes not only the best pizza south of Trenton, N.J., but also a tremendous marinara pie.” I’d also recommend a generous slice of stuffed ‘za, filled with a melange of onions, meatballs, ricotta, and mozzarella. It’s scrumptious.

Alario’s, 8150 Baltimore Blvd., College Park. (301) 474-3003.

—Brett Anderson