Across the river from Georgetown, west on Wilson Boulevard past Clarendon, the Arlington County Courthouse, Thursday's bar and Sears, is Parkington Shopping Center. But if you bear with it and turn right on Stafford Street (at the Honda motorcycle dealer), you'll come across Eskimo Nell's -- a die-hard local hangout that has survived a fire and four different managements in its five-year existence.

Eskimo Nell is reputed to have been the first hooker in Alaska, prospering during the Gold Rush days, according to owner Don Hannan. The decor of his restaurant/bar reaches back to that down-and-dirty era of the West: In the main room, a butter churn, ox yoke, rake and a saw are nailed to one wall, and pictures of women models of the 1870s hang on another. The barroom walls are made from barnwood. The drinkers, mostly men in flannel shirts, work boots and real Levi's worn out in the seat, slouch on barstools drinking drafts of Budweiser or Michelob.

"The customers here aren't concerned with what kind of beer they're drinking. As long as it has bubbles and a head on it, they're happy," says bartender Ellis Manning of his regular patrons.

But wait -- come back. Don't let this first impression scare you off. In fact, Hannan is doing a lot to change this tough image. He put a big picture window in the front because "people used to be afraid to come in here."

His other overhauls include: comedy night every Thursday, Friday and Saturday with local acts and headliners from New York and Los Angeles; and a new chef, Bobby Brown (formerly of the Market Inn). Hannan brags that Eskimo Nell's "just won the 1983 Virginia chili cookoff. We beat Clyde's, and that's all I really wanted to do."

Hannan, who has owned Nell's for ust over a year, has also hired the Nard's Rock and Roll Revue DJs to spin tunes, enlarged the dance floor and stage area, started a takeout and home-delivery service, instituted a 10 percent discount on meals to people over 60 and started a daily happy hour that goes from 11:30 until 7.

It takes a good six minutes to peruse Nell's menu thoroughly. There are 58 items to choose from, including eight types of hamburger, barbecued ribs and chicken, roast prime rib, fresh fish, five different pies and, of course, the state champion chili, served by the bowl with onions, cheese and crackers.

First-timers to Nell's should take note of the dress code: Collared shirts are a must for guys; no cut-offs permitted; clean sneakers and blue jeans are allowed but they can't have holes. Also, you have to be at least 19 to get in.

Eskimo Nell's is just across the parking lot from Metrorail's Ballston station exit, convenient for hungry or thirsty commuters. And even if you're just shopping at the mall down the street, stop by and say hi to Hannan and the boys; you'll savor the warmth of Nell's cheer -- and her chili. ESKIMO NELL'S -- 815 Stafford Street, Arlington, 528-4300. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Friday; 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday, closed Sunday. Drinks: $1.50 rail; $2 call; $1 draft, $2 bottle and imports. $4 cover Thursday comedy night, $5 cover Friday and Saturday shows.