{sstar}{sstar} (2 stars) Coastal Flats

11901 Grand Commons Ave. (near Monument Drive), Fairfax. 571-522-6300. www.greatamericanrestaurants.com

Open: for lunch daily 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; for dinner Sunday and Monday 4 to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday 4 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 p.m. to midnight. All major credit cards. No reservations; call-ahead seating available. Smoking in bar area only. Parking lot. Prices: lunch appetizers $4 to $7, entrees $8 to $19; dinner appetizers $4 to $8, entrees $9 to $24. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50 per person.

The greeting on the phone sounds familiar, in part because, if I call at a particularly busy time, the voice on the other end of the line at Coastal Flats always asks me politely if I would mind holding. Nice gesture. And when my waitress looks as if there's no place she'd rather be than at my table -- and she's able to rattle off every ingredient in an entree without referring to notes -- that leaves me with a sense of deja vu, too. The warm bread basket, the rich lobster bisque -- some of the cooking in this new restaurant also stirs not-so-distant memories.

Coastal Flats has Great American Restaurant stamped all over it. The local mini-chain that brought us Artie's, Carlyle, Mike's American Grill, Silverado and three Sweetwater Taverns -- seven good American restaurants scattered around Northern Virginia -- is making a splash in Fairfax with a whale of a casual seafood restaurant. The cavernous interior holds more than 250 seats, but that's not enough to accommodate all the people who want to dine there.

"Party of four? There's a two-hour wait right now," I catch a young woman at the host stand telling a caller. Outfitted with an earpiece and microphone, the hostess is one of nine air traffic -- er, diner -- controllers I count on a late Saturday afternoon. As with other Great American properties, this venue doesn't take reservations; instead, it uses a "call-ahead" system, whereby patrons put their names on a waiting list and get an estimate of how long it might take to be seated. Any wait gives visitors a chance to check out the broad porch in the rear, which includes a bar and a handful of tables. The space manages to evoke a veranda near the water, despite its sweeping view of parked cars as far as one can see.

The food at Coastal Flats brims with as much personality as the staff that works there, and the kitchen swims around for inspiration. Chilled "Yucatan shrimp" is one of those dishes you see at every fashionable Latin American eatery these days, a shrimp cocktail fashioned with mango, avocado and a citrusy tomato sauce. This version is more playful, served as it is with soda crackers and a small bottle of green-pepper hot sauce. "Put a few drops on the cracker, and put some shrimp on top," a server suggests. True to its title -- and better than it sounds -- the "jambalaya egg roll" resonates with a brassy filling of smoked chicken, peppers and more. Rock shrimp find themselves in the center of spiky fritters sprinkled with roasted-corn salsa and gilded with a zippy butter sauce. The fritters are piping hot, and addictive. On the other hand, "sweet and spicy" calamari is far too much of the former and only a glimmer of the latter, though the jumble includes thin green beans that add color and flavor to a snack that's become so common I'm surprised not to find it at the ballpark.

Great American knows a winning idea when it sees one. So it repeats some of the hits from its other restaurants, including yeasty buns in the bread basket and soups such as corn-and-crab chowder. They are welcome sightings.

Yet there's more that's new at Coastal Flats, including a lovely lobster roll and a respectable steamed bass that assumes an Asian accent with sticky rice and a light wash of soy-and-sherry sauce. The restaurant's take on fish and chips partners grouper with a light, golden beer batter that keeps the fish moist; an assertive and fresh-tasting tartar sauce punches up the eating. Heed the server's recitation of specials, which in my experience have included expertly grilled swordfish with a mash of sweet potatoes, everything circled by a zingy sauce of lime and coconut.

The menu isn't all about surf. Indeed, one of the best items on it is the "Key lime" roast half-chicken. Rubbed with thyme, fennel, rosemary and paprika, it's as succulent a bird as I've had in the D.C. suburbs and served with a fluffy couscous jazzed up with almonds. The generous entree costs $13 and tastes like something you'd expect to find in a restaurant with a dress code and a sommelier. It's haute stuff.

As well-run as Coastal Flats is -- how does everyone manage to stay upbeat at prime time? -- mistakes occur. But the occasional slip is handled with finesse. When several of us are kept from eating our entrees while we wait for one friend's food to be delivered, a manager apologizes when she finally appears with the plate of barbecued ribs: "We saved the best for last!" I wouldn't go that far, but those smoky ribs are plenty meaty and nicely accessorized with fresh, not-too-sweet coleslaw and Paris Hilton-thin french fries.

For all its unbridled cheer, Coastal Flats keeps a few rules that don't seem particularly customer-friendly. Would it kill the place to take reservations? Notes on the menu also let diners know that wine purchased by the bottle is "pre-opened at the bar" and that food can't be ordered for carryout (though leftovers can be taken home). When I inquire about a bottle of wine whose cork is partially removed, a waitress explains that Coastal Flats wants to do away with formal wine rituals. "I don't necessarily agree with it," she says, shrugging her shoulders as she flashes a big smile, "but that's what we're told to do." As for the no-carryout rule, management would rather not have its pretty food messed up en route from restaurant kitchen to home or office. If you want to take any remaining food home, you have to pack it yourself at the table (hiss! boo!) into containers that come marked by the servers with what's inside and the date (bravo!).

From the outside, the restaurant's sunny yellow facade suggests an inviting beach house. On steroids. The dining room is attractively decorated with schools of faux fish swimming above patrons' heads in the foyer and thin, colored lights suspended above the dozens of booths -- booths that, if you think about it, might remind you of pictures you've seen of the Chicago stockyards. No offense or anything, but it would have been nice if the designer had carved up the vast space a bit. And if you have a problem with noise, consider bringing some earplugs, because IT'S REALLY LOUD HERE.

Open since the end of July, Coastal Flats is still getting its sea legs. But it comes from a family with a good reputation -- and already delivers a lot to like.

Ask Tom

Stacy DeLange says she and her husband, Eric, typically leave "plenty of food on our plates" when they dine out, yet they were surprised when the fruit crisp they ordered at Buck's Fishing & Camping showed up with "a tablespoon (maybe) of ice cream," the Annandale reader submits via e-mail. A couple next to the DeLanges also complained about a paltry serving with their dessert, she says, to which the server replied that they could get another scoop but they would have to pay extra. "Over an extra scoop of vanilla ice cream," DeLange reports, "Buck's lost four customers that night." The restaurant's general manager, James Alefantis, says he wishes the complaint had made it back to him. "We're always evaluating sizes," he told me on the phone. "I don't want people to leave feeling we're stingy." On the other hand, "we're not in the business of giving things away." Trying to put a sweet spin on the problem, he added, "Sometimes a little bit can be really good."

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