We Americans love to go out to eat. And we love to stay home. So we have found a way to do both at once, through an institution called the carryout that permits us to eat restaurant food at home.

Nearly anything you can eat in a restaurant you can find -- in some approximation -- in a carryout. That's not as a great a gustatory opportunity as you might think, though. Much of what is available to carry out doesn't actually carry well, and as I discovered in months of testing carryouts, much of it is repetitious. I used to love chicken salad, but that was 75 carryouts ago. Already as jaded as one could be by pasta salads, I found myself faced with trying about six dozen more.

Nonetheless, carryouts continue to appeal. Top-notch cooking for a come-as-you-are (or stay-as-you-are) dinner combines excitement and comfort wonderfully. The chance to pick a little of this and a little of that can make a menu more personalized than you might be able to construct in a restaurant; carryouts cater to eccentricities.

Even better is having somebody show up at your door with dinner ready to eat. Home delivery, that delightful old-fashioned luxury, is returning in force. Carryout and delivery, moreover, are typically cheaper than eating out. (Exception: at the Tastee Diner takeout food costs 10 cents more.)

At last count, carryout sales were estimated at nearly 40 percent of all restaurant dollars and still growing. In fact, those sales were growing nearly 10 times as fast as the restaurant business as a whole. So restaurants have been jumping on the bandwagon, not just by offering carryout on their premises but by opening carryout shops supplied by their restaurant kitchen. Some celebrated chefs -- such as Moncef Meddeb of Boston's L'Espalier and Barry Wine of New York's The Quilted Giraffe -- are opening carryout shops.

The newest growth spurt is in deliveries. Burger King is testing mobile restaurants. "Now we're taking food to the people," said Steve Finn, general manager of this new Burger King division, in a UPI dispatch. To Washingtonians Armand's stop-me-for-a-pizza delivery trucks are becoming as familiar as Ridgewell's purple vans. We haven't yet gone as far as Detroit, where you can get a videotape delivered with your pizza (It's picked up for return the following morning), or Ventura, Calif., where Milano's Pizza Restaurant will deliver by motorboat to your yacht.

Even restaurants are ordering carryout. Gerard's Haute Cuisine would like to revolutionize restaurant and home cooking. It packages culinary elegance -- seafood in champagne sauce; salmon ravioli; monkfish with mushrooms and chervil in red pepper sauce; lamb saute'ed in white wine and tomatoes with baby vegetables -- in vacuum bags to be sold through stores such as Bloomingdale's in New York, and wholesale by overnight mail to restaurants. All you have to do for an entree of lobster, scallops and salmon with vegetable batons on buttered rice with creamy champagne sauce is drop three plastic bags in simmering water for a few minutes and then arrange their contents on a plate. The range of dishes runs from soups to pa te's and terrines to hot and cold entrees and desserts. The prices are equivalent to moderately fancy restaurants. And the ingredients are of high quality when they're fresh.

The problem is these vacuum-packed delicacies have a pull date of 10 days; after eight days, my samples had developed an off-taste. Seafoods had a rubbery packaged flavor, and the texture of the pasta was limp. Fresher would be better, and the novelty of sending haute cuisine to your parents in Des Moines for their anniversary or having Bloomie's deliver dinner for two to your Manhattan penthouse may warrant your suspending your usual standards. Holding these bags handy on your shelf for a few days, though, does not work, and ordering them in restaurants seems either far in the future or far in the past,reminiscent of the heyday of the frozen chicken cordon bleu.

What is clear is that the carryout business is changing as well as growing. For this guide to carryout and delivery in Washington, my sample of carryouts ranged from strictly carryout shops to restaurants that eagerly or reluctantly fill orders to take out. In order to concentrate on what is new more than what is familiar, I didn't review pizza or Chinese carryouts except those that deliver. Otherwise I tried to find a range of styles, prices and locations, though I focused particularly on "gourmet-to-go" shops, those modern-day delis that sell catering-style foods on a ready-to-go basis.

If March acts like a lion, this guide should ready you to throw another log on the fire and dial a dinner; if it turns into a lamb, then use this as the 1986 picnic guide.