Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday noon to 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday until 3 p.m. Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Closed Monday. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Prices: At lunch entrees are $6 to $12; at dinner appetizers average $4 to $6, main dishes $13 to $20. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip, $40 or more per person.

There is hope for a 26-year-old romance.

Since the Old Angler's Inn was restored in 1957, it

has had a stormy and intense affair with the diners of

Washington. Couples have snuggled into the dim cor ners of its lounge sofas to sip brandy before the fire. Celebrants have shared a rack of lamb illuminated by the moon outside the second-story windows. Hedonists have whiled away a balmy evening on the terrace. Old Angler's has been cast in myth, set in fiction, romanticized almost to the point of being named as corespondent in a divorce action. But in being so romantically situated, it has also gotten away with too much: with seediness masked by dim lighting, with dingy fish nets left to hang as wall decorations long after they passed from fashion, with a ridiculous winding stairway fit only for a submarine, with wines priced far beyond their value, with food that was at best not noticeable. It has infuriated joggers and cyclists who have been turned away without a Perrier. It has outraged diners who suffered absentminded service. It has irritated anyone seeking value in food and drink.

But now the dimmest restaurant in town has apparently seen the light. The fish nets still hang, the wine list still insults, the hikers are still not catered to, the stairway still winds. But there is a new chef in the kitchen and clearly he has a mandate to aim for culinary excitement. He is inventing --not always but often with success--and he is shopping for high-quality foods, particularly seafoods, and fresh herbs. One might suggest these days not just, "Let's go to the Old Angler's," but "Let's go eat at the Old Angler's."

Still, the drive is the thing: out MacArthur Boulevard farther than you thought it went, into a green countryside within a half-hour of downtown bustle. On a starry evening you might want to have a drink or dinner outside, though find out first if the mosquitos are hungry. Otherwise--and certainly on a chilly winter evening when the fireplaces are blazing--start with a drink in the lounge. It's a champagne kind of environment and there are several fizzy wines on the list at rather fizzy prices. Otherwise the wine list is rather short and mundane, though sometimes the cellar has a surprise that is not on the list; the average Alsace or least expensive California varietal starts at about $15 and rapidly escalates.

You can look at the menu as you sip and order your dinner, to be called to your upstairs table when it is ready. And while the summer menu was not yet ready on my last visit, it, like the previous menu, will be largely seafood. Pay particular attention to the specials: one night as an appetizer there was raw tuna sliced thin and seasoned with fresh dill and lime juice, a cross between sashimi and gravlax that was delicious. Oysters were warmed in their shells and bathed with a soft beurre blanc, then topped with fresh herbs. Lovely. I had an outstanding spicy and briny mussel soup and a delicious asparagus-broccoli soup that intermingled fresh vegetables once asparagus was in season and the cans had been put away. I repeat the warning, however, that the kitchen makes some expensive mistakes: Grilled fresh sardines were strongly fishy and difficult to eat safely in such dim light, given their boniness. Earlier in the season the chef created a confused mess of a duck confit salad with hazelnut oil and pear vinegar at $7.50. Overcooked, iodiny shrimp in a rather good grainy mustard sauce was far overpriced at $8.50.

The few meat dishes tend to be good. The winter's version of duck was skinless breast slices in a limpid, slightly sweet cider sauce that skirted being cloying. It was a fine dish, with a rosette of paper-thin saut,eed potato slices. Rack of lamb was well-trimmed, nicely seasoned and cooked as rare as ordered.

Most main dishes are seafoods. One I sampled was sea bass fillets grilled and topped with diced tomatoes and dill, quite zesty and fresh for a summer evening. The kitchen uses its fresh herbs to advantages and serves wonderful, intensely flavored vegetables, though sometimes they are a little tortured in their arrangement.

The flaws seem to come primarily from an excess of ambition and imitation. One evening's poached fish platter was an embarrassingly painstaking collage of braided sole fillets, rather good salmon and overcooked monkfish, as well as other overcooked thin fillets and scallops that remained supple and delightful. Batons of carrot, zucchini and turnip were in spokes around the plate, all topped with creamy leek sauce. It was overblown, too much for the kitchen to do consistently well. Another day the salmon was sadly overcooked and served in a sauce that was supposed to be of leeks but was sugary, brown and anonymous. Scallops were repeatedly excellent, sweet and tender and cooked just right. They would be better, though, in a dish of more contrast than a cream sauce (bland and white) with julienned endive (also bland and white).

Clearly the Old Angler's kitchen is experimenting and learning. On my last visit I smelled what seemed like charcoal- grilled meat as I walked to the door. Yet the ma.itre d'h.otel said there was nothing grilled on the menu. Then one of our group overheard from the kitchen:

French accent: "Do you know who is here? Phyllis Richman."

American accent: "I hope she likes burned food."

Earlier this season desserts included a reasonably good chocolate terrine and a dreadful cloying strawberry mousse. Dessert more recently was brought without our being offered a choice: several very good homemade sorbets arranged with fruits on a raspberry-rum sauce.

While it was obviously making special effort, this season that effort is bearing fruit, turning a romantic and special restaurant into one with some food to match. Old Angler's Inn is, after all these years, learning new tricks.