By Eve Zibart Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, March 23, 2001 The expansion of Washington hasn't merely created suburbs, it has inspired suburbs of suburbs, whole new mini-towns -- and some not so mini -- rippling out, absorbing or simply amalgamating the older communities in their path. Sometimes these new suburbs are the result of successive migrations, in a way; families moving farther out in search of more space or fresh starts, new businesses seeking campus space, retirees with leisure time and the country-club habit. Perhaps that's why planned retro-communities such as Kentlands, with their blend of nostalgic architecture and modern convenience, sometimes seem to be further generations of earlier bedroom communities - Bethesda, for instance -- in just the way Bethesda was once the after-hours escape for disaffected downtowners. And that is why a family restaurant like O'Donnell's - family-style and family-owned - is itself in its third generation, having migrated along with its audience fromdowntown to Bethesda and now to Kentlands. So when is a period piece more than just that? When it stays up with the times and with all its patrons, treating both tradition and trend with respect. While years of sad experience with dried and tired buffets or rank, rancid "Calabash" fries (or thundering hordes of busing tourists) have quite frankly given Chesapeake-style seafood houses a problematic place in my book, O'Donnell's does a more than creditable job of maintaining quality and variety. And it even manages to turn over whole parties in about an hour without ever making service seem anything but comfortable - a trick many more expensive seafood spots in Washington would do well to study. This is partly the accomplishment of manager Bill Edelblut, grandson of the founder and a peripatetic presence; but the comfort level is a testament to the individual waiters. Although the two D.C. locations are long gone, after nearly 80 years, O'Donnell's is still turning out the Norfolk-style seafood - sauteed in butter and finished with tarragon vinegar - that made founder Tom O'Donnell famous. And there's reason; although it sounds rich, it's not nearly so cloying as creamier "Norfolks" and is an only somewhat guilty version of a seafood bonanza salad. It's especially hard to resist in combination, with chicken lobster tails, lump crab and shrimp; but if you have a particular hankering, the uniformly obliging kitchen will happily substitute, say, scallops for the shrimp. (All the Norfolk dishes come in a "petite" size as well as the dinner size, though they cost almost as much.) The bar-fare openers, such as Cajun-fried oysters, spinach-artichoke dip and shrimp cocktail, go down all too easy; the bisque is very good. The crab casserole in white wine and cheese sauce is the sort of dish you see on menus all over Ocean City but should only have here, in safety and sanity. Deep-fried eggplant layered with crab, sharp cheese and creamy imperial glaze reminds me of one of those thousand ornate and variously improbable sandwiches at Roy's in Gaithersburg. But for plainer palates, O'Donnell's has not only a half-dozen fish choices that can be "simply prepared" -- grilled, broiled, poached, pan-fried or blackened -- it also has a handful of modern standards, each in a style patrons may have admired elsewhere. The pan-seared tuna comes with nicely separate black beans, a light mango puree and a bit of trendy wasabi cream. It's not a filet mignon look-alike but a sizable steak nevertheless. One night's special, a sort of mixed seafood stew over saffron rice, was very nice, the saffron fragrant, the salting blessedly light and the broth simply seafood. You can even have the "Norfolk" dishes sauteed with margarine instead of butter, white wine instead of vinegar, and doses of fresh garlic. There are some less successful touches. The signature crab cakes are too flabby, both inside and out; the mix doesn't have much more body than the crab stuffing in the stuffed mushroom appetizer. The "curried fried rice cake" beneath the Asian tuna was flavorless and of an unpleasant, spongy consistency, as if it had been frozen and reheated. The oysters Rockefeller are a little bland, perhaps over-rinsed, and could use a little Tabasco on top; and as one regular pointed out, the steamed mussels have pretty good flavor, but they're also pretty small, especially compared to some of the showier dishes in the area. The peculiar tradition of serving sweet cinnamon rolls with seafood is a long-time puzzle, and these have an acrid extract-of-something aftertaste in the icing; but they must be popular, because they get hurried out so quickly that I have yet to have one that was cooked all the way through. And sadly, the french fries are only passable, probably the only thing that should have more salt. Still, the seafood's the thing, and that goes a long way. O'Donnell's building itself isn't showy, a slightly Victorian farmhouse, but it has many virtues: a likable, eat-in (smoke in) lounge with live light rock-pop entertainment on Fridays; two dining rooms, one entirely installed with booths; a smallish enclosed porch with tables; and a larger outdoor deck for warm-weather dining. It's so low-key you may drive past it the first time; as you come up Kentlands Boulevard from Great Seneca Highway, it's on the right just beyond the turn into the big shopping center.