THOUGH visitors to Virginia's Northern Neck certainly hope never to find themselves in trouble with the law, those who do end up cooling their heels in the Westmoreland County jail can look forward to a bit of salvation around mealtime.

The salvation, in this case, takes the form of three square meals a day prepared in the kitchen of a historic white building across the street. And while the jailhouse crowd breakfasts on shaved country ham, eggs, biscuits and grits, neighboring diners who are not so encumbered enjoy the friendly warmth and good country cooking of The Inn at Montross.

Built prior to 1683, when John Minor was granted permission by the justices of the county court to keep an "ordinary" or tavern, the establishment offered colonial travelers bed, board and livery. The building burned around 1800 and was immediately rebuilt, though the original masonry foundations can be seen in the former wine cellar, now the John Minor Ordinary.

Today, the young chef/proprietor provides visitors with everything except the livery. Wayne Hicks, with the help of his parents, Edwin and Virginia Hicks, is attempting to recapture an era when surrounding plantation owners and country folk congregated in town to do business at the county courthouse located in front of the old inn. Three meals a day are served in four dining rooms while the ordinary downstairs dispenses drinks, sandwiches and lighter fare. Upstairs, Hicks has carefully renovated six comfortable guest rooms (each has a private bath) and has attractively furnished them with old family pieces, including a brass-trimmed painted iron bed. On the main floor, says Hicks, renovations will continue, from replacing the chandeliers with the original lighting fixtures to uncovering the old, wide, pine floorboards.

Despite the dark pseudo paneling and blue flocked wallpaper in two of the dining rooms -- a legacy of The Inn's previous incarnation as a French restaurant -- and a salad bar that must be a legacy from Hicks' mass-feeding days, the food is unpretentious: country-style Surrey County ham, chicken and dumplings, freshly baked pies, crunchy hush puppies and, of course, the seafood. This is, after all, the Tidewater area.

"People come down here looking for fresh seafood," says Hicks, explaining that he relies on the local catch -- oysters, crabs, rock, trout, flounder -- from the nearby Potomac and Rappahannock rivers to stock his larder. (Only the scallops, shrimp and lobster are brought in from Norfolk.) Even local wine from neighboring Ingleside Plantation Vineyards, which released its first four bottlings this year, is served.

"I stock the freshest ingredients possible and rely on herbs to enhance a dish instead of salt and pepper," says the health-conscious cook. "And I'd rather have someone say, 'this seems to have a hint of dill,' rather than 'this tastes good.' "

Hicks says he learned his love of food in his grandmother's kitchen. "My grandparents owned a farm where I visited every summer and on holidays," he explains. "They did a tremendous amount of canning, slaughtered their own hogs and sheep. And no matter whether you were a boy or girl, when there were tomatoes to peel, you were busy peeling. I just seemed to pick up on what was happening in the kitchen."

After a stint as a high-school teacher and football coach (he tried unsuccessfully to join the Redskins as a kicker), Hicks and his wife opened a marina at Coles Point and began fixing lunches for his crew. "Soon the guys off the highway truck and shucking house next door started coming in," he relates. As demand grew, he eventually opened a small restaurant to cater to the local trade. After five years of feeding watermen as well as businessmen passing through, he left to run the food service operation at Westhampton College in Richmond. That experience, he says, taught him some of the finer points of catering. But two years ago, news of The Inn's availability drew him back to the Tidewater. Though the building had been sitting vacant for two years and was badly in need of repair, Hicks snapped it up.

"With the traffic from Fredericksburg continuing down to Williamsburg and with Stratford Hall and Wakefield Plantation just several miles away, thousands of tourists pass through here each year. It seemed like the ideal location to open the type of place I envisioned," says Hicks. "There is still a ways to go with the renovation and with the expansion of the guest quarters and dining areas, but it has been satisfying to see it come together."

Renovations, jailhouse diners and hush puppies are only part of the story. What Hicks, his family and staff have managed to do is somehow make a visit seem like old-home week: grandchildren's pictures are passed around, out-of-state summer people are caught up on the local goings-on, a pair of Redskins football tickets is offered to a newcomer. "When people come back again," laughs his mother, "you'll be sure to find them back in the kitchen socializing with Wayne."

From The Inn at Montross, here are a few favorites.

CRAB SOUP (4 to 6 servings)

Ideal for those on low-sodium diets, this creamy essence of crab contains no salt. 1/2 cup butter 2 stalks celery, finely minced 3 tablespoons cornstarch 1 quart milk 2 tablespoons dry white wine 2 teaspoons Sauer or other saltless seafood seasoning 2 teaspoons celery seed 1 tablespoon dill weed 6-ounce can drained mushrooms or 3/4 cup fresh mushrooms saute'ed in a little butter 1 pound lump backfin crab meat

Over medium-low heat, melt the butter in a large saucepan and saute' the celery until just soft. Add the cornstarch to the pan with a little of the milk and stir to dissolve any lumps before adding the rest of the milk and the wine, seafood seasoning, celery seed, dill weed and mushrooms. Allow the mixture to heat slowly, stirring frequently. Do not let the soup boil. When the soup begins to thicken, gently fold in the crab meat and allow the soup to reach 175 to 180 degrees. Serve immediately in heated cups or soup dishes.

CRAB IMPERIAL (4 servings)

An interesting departure from creamy interpretations of this seafood classic, The Inn's version is puffy and golden, much like a souffle', so leave plenty of room in the baking dish for rising. 3 eggs 4 tablespoons mayonnaise 2 tablespoons dry white wine 2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish 1 teaspoon dill weed 2 teaspoons Sauer or other saltless seafood seasoning 1 pound lump backfin crab meat

In a bowl, whip the eggs until fluffy. Beat in the mayonnaise and wine. Add the pickle relish, dill weed and seafood seasoning and mix well. Gently fold in the crab meat, then pour the mixture into a buttered casserole or individual gratin dishes. Bake at 375 for 20 to 25 minutes or until lightly golden on top.

SWEET POTATO PIE (Makes 2 9-inch pies)

To create this quintessential southern dessert, Hicks uses the "red" variety sweet potatoes. 8 eggs 2 cups sugar 5 large sweet potatoes, cooked, peeled and mashed 2 tablespoons cinnamon 2 tablespoons vanilla 3 cups milk 2 pre-baked 9-inch pie shells

In a large bowl, beat eggs until fluffy. Gradually add sugar and beat until smooth and lemony. Stir in the mashed sweet potato, cinnamon and vanilla. Beat in the milk until ingredients are well-combined. Pour into prepared pie shells and bake 20 minutes in a 350-degree oven. Cool on wire racks.