1232 36th St. NW. 342-0009. Open: for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non- smoking section. Prices: appetizers $3.95 to $6.50, entrees $6.50 to $19. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $30 to $48 per person.

The trend-watchers have been telling us lately that romance is back. If F. Scott's is any barometer, they're right. Despite the shoulder-to-shoulder weekend crowds and the sometimes palpable stress of singles-mingling, this sleek, darkly streamlined place is romantic to the core. Part of the romance is its 1920s aura, a quietly stated theme that somehow manages to ring true. The old European travel posters on the walls, with their roadsters and slim-hipped women, are the real thing, and the tuxedoed host at the door could be straight out of a jazz-age nightclub. There's romance in the background music, too, a me'lange of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Fats Waller and the big-band classics, alternately belted out and caressed by singers like Frank Sinatra and Nancy Wilson. In this carefully contrived time capsule, it's as if Jagger and Springsteen had never been born.

The upstairs dining level, dominated by a bar, is where the singles do their seeking. Downstairs it's relatively quiet, with two small, intimate dining rooms flanking a tiny dance floor.

With all the action at the bar, you might think the food here would be an afterthought. It's not. The menu is fairly brief, but what's offered has been remarkably good across the board, with a few items that are real standouts. In

Mark and Gail Barnett are free-lance restaurant critics. Phyllis C. Richman is on assignment. addition to daily specials, there are close to 20 appetizers and entrees, a few salads and pizzas, a variety of pastas, some light and relatively inexpensive dishes, and desserts made in an adjoining bakery that also serves the nearby 1789 restaurant, which, like F. Scott's, is owned by Clyde's.

A highlight among the appetizers is the saute'ed lamb, chunks of juicy, crusty- surfaced grilled meat graced with fresh rosemary, fennel and lots of garlic and served with a fried artichoke. Another is the beautifully flavored eggplant crepe, thin slices of eggplant rolled around a ricotta-spinach mixture and topped with a bit of fine tomato sauce. The fried calamari, tender and golden-light, are impressive, too. The samosas taste more like egg rolls than the real Indian article, but they're nice finger food anyway, light and crunchy and filled with morsels of chicken.

Don't overlook the excellent salads or the exceptionally good pizza, a hearth- baked product with impeccable toppings and crust. Or share a pasta as an appetizer. The penne all'amatriciana, a low-key but outstanding dish, comes with a veritable Rolls-Royce among tomato sauces: chunky, naturally sweet, with just enough pancetta for zip. The rigatoni, served with excellent Italian sausage, has a meatier, more assertive tomato sauce, its olive oil shining through.

There's more good tomato sauce, this time laced with fennel, on the linguine di mare, with tender mussels, clams, calamari and shrimp -- excellent, if small- portioned. The cannelloni is an odd-but- good version in which the usual pure'ed filling is replaced by tiny chunks of veal, mushrooms and spinach. The fettuccine alfredo and wild mushroom fettuccine have a nice, light touch, but they border on the bland.

One of the best entrees is salmon baked in paper, exquisitely moist and delicate. Grilled chicken is a winner, too, chunks of moist breast fillet marinated in olive oil and garlic. The thick, juicy lamb chops, when they're available, are first- class. And the veal dishes are lovely, particularly the saltimbocca, which wisely goes easy on the cheese and ham.

Good, if less exceptional, are the chicken braciole, with bits of bacon and parmesan cheese, and the daily fish specials, well prepared but without the dazzle of some of the other entrees. We ran into only one sub-par item here, soft-shell crabs that were cooked to a mush and engulfed in cream sauce.

There are also several light-fare dishes that are good buys, among them a big platter of scrambled eggs and saute'ed sweet red peppers and prosciutto at $6.50, and a strip sirloin with eggs and excellent fried potatoes at $9.95.

Some of the desserts are formidable, including an irresistible house special of espresso-soaked ladyfingers topped with mascarpone cheese and shaved bitter chocolate, and a wonderful cheesecake. (The only letdown in the dessert department is the gummy pecan pie.)

Go to F. Scott's with someone special, and try to eat downstairs. Pay attention to the music during dessert, and when they're playing something soft and tender, give it your best shot on the dance floor. Even if things don't work out, you'll have eaten a good pasta. ::