You never know just what to expect when you walk into Chez Louisiane. And neither do its proprietors.

One week the place is full of laughs. The next time you drop by, its owner is facing a crisis and you end up in tears. Come again, and one of the regulars is flirting with drug addiction.

You can't tell what you'll find when you drop by the Chez, but you can count on feeling good when you leave.

That's how it's been at the Chez, pronounced "shezz" and better known as "Frank's Place," CBS's new half-hour series. It's an unpredictable show, one that varies in mood from manic to depressive, swiftly shifts focus from one character to another, and even changes time-slots abruptly.

But amid the show's ebb and flow, one element -- heart -- beats constant, endearing the show to the corps of viewers it has already won and well-suiting the series in its quest for a wider audience.

Loyalists and potential newcomers to its viewership will note that the show makes another time-slot change this week. Originally scheduled for Saturday night this fall, "Frank's Place" never played there, staying on Mondays at 8 after a successful debut that night. This week, CBS slides the show to 8:30, as it trades places with "Kate and Allie."

The simple premise of "Frank's Place" has given rise to a show that defies most conventions of series television. Frank Parrish, played by Tim Reid, has come to New Orleans to assume ownership of his late father's restaurant, Chez Louisiane. Once transplanted, he takes up with a wide array of local characters, most of them down-to-earth, genuine and identifiable. That alone -- identifiable characters who stay on the right side of stereotyping -- sets "Frank's Place" apart from most of its TV peers.

There are 11 regulars in the show's ensemble, but the term ensemble takes on a different meaning here than it does on a show like "L.A. Law." Rather than carry several storylines each night, "Frank's Place" tends to feature one player at a time. One week it's a funny turn by Lincoln Kilpatrick as the slippery Reverend Deal; the next it might be William Thomas Jr.'s Cool Charles getting in over his head with drug dealers.

The steadfast but understated hub of this large wheel of players is Reid, who also wears a hat as the show's executive producer.

the direction the show has taken is no accident. Reid and Hugh Wilson, his friend and co-executive producer, had it in mind all along. "We made a pact to do what we'd always wanted to do -- to show a segment of American culture in a way it had not been done. It's black, Southern. But the blacks are not woe-is-me, downtrodden black people, and the whites are not racist, hang-'em-type white guys. It's a show that's respectful to both cultures.

"I think we're setting groundwork in television, showing black people in a more respectful, positive way. We're dealing with a middle ground of people -- not {the extremes of} pimps and hookers and superblacks. And there's respect for older people. Everyone treats Miss Marie {the Chez' waitress emeritus played by Frances Williams} with respect. We have four women in the cast, ranging in age from about 21 to 83.

"The cast is different -- not everyone is a blue-eyed blond. We're getting out of that New York-L.A. mentality. Everybody doesn't have to look like they just came off the cover of Vogue or GQ."

Reid and Wilson are something of an odd couple. Reid is black, impeccable, urbane. Wilson is white, a tad rumpled by comparison to Reid (but then, who isn't?), and his Southern roots can be traced in his speech. They've been friends for nine years, back to the time Wilson created and Reid played in "WKRP in Cincinnati." They play tennis together, and it was over a net that "Frank's Place" was conceived. Or at least it was there that they decided to try to hatch something.

Later, when Reid was in his fourth season as Downtown Brown on "Simon and Simon" and Wilson, who had directed "Police Academy," was finishing up "Burglar," they got their agents together, Reid recalled, and suddenly a star-producer package was wrapped.

The idea for the show took shape -- very vague shape -- as they headed for the office of Kim LeMasters, now president of CBS Entertainment. "We wanted to do something set in the South, involving a restaurant, maybe focusing on an athlete forced into retirement," said Reid of the idea they fashioned in the elevator up to LeMasters' office.

It fell to LeMasters to reach into his story-idea bag and match theirs with one of his: A show centered on a New Orleans restaurant, rich in music and texture. Wilson noted that such a show should be filmed rather than taped, shot like a quality feature movie. Deal. It was October of 1986.

Later, scripting, casting and filming of the pilot were accomplished in three weeks, with the first episode submitted to the network on deadline. Later, LeMasters was quoted as telling the CBS affiliates' meeting it was the best pilot he'd ever seen.

CBS clearly feels "Frank's Place" is a gem, but it has nearly buried this little treasure. The show is by everyone's reckoning one that should play later in the evening when a more mature audience takes control of the tube. Wilson, who has creative control of the show, said he is reluctant to press the issue of a later time-slot. "If they're going to give me this control, I'm not going to bitch and moan about the time-slot," he said. But he does gripe a bit. "I'm not going to cut my cloth to fit 8 p.m.," he said. At one point, he said, he told LeMasters, "I thought I'd trapped you into putting it at 9" with the show's often-mature storylines. But things could be worse: When the show was slotted for Saturday at 8, an evening of relatively low viewership, Grant Tinker told Wilson that time-slot "was like the electric chair."

The episode that served notice the series was cut from cloth of a different stripe dealt with a Chez patron who drove his vehicle off a bridge after drinking at the restaurant. Faced with a potentially devastating liability suit, Frank asks a Chez regular, Bubba Weisberger, a Jewish lawyer played by Robert Harper, to investigate. Ultimately he confronts the patron's widow, played by Beah Richards, and elicits her heart-wrenching admission that her husband committed suicide.

The show moved some 700 people to call CBS. "That's the most they've gotten in seven years," said Wilson, "and they were all favorable."

The episode also moved CBS to quit promoting the show as a comedy and to tout it instead as a show on which anything might happen.

"I've done TV before," said Wilson, "and we got lots of mail on 'WKRP' -- but a lot of it was asking for Loni Anderson's autograph. It was fan mail. This is two- and three-page typed letters from doctors. This is upscale. None of it is in crayon. People just go on about the show. They seem to be deeply appreciating that it's on."

The loyalists were jolted again by a two-part episode in which Cool Charles had a brush with the drug world. Ratings sagged, and, said co-star Daphne Maxwell Reid, it was a low for her and her husband. "It was like Tim had been punched in the gut and was doubled over, and there was nothing I could do."

"We definitely took a chance," said Tim Reid. "We may have lost a viewer or two. The first part was tough to watch."

the show gets another change of pace this week in a scheduled episode called "The Fighting Chefs." Incensed when another cook plagiarizes his recipes, Big Arthur, the Chez' head cook, ends up settling the matter in a boxing ring.

Tony Burton, who plays Arthur, has fight experience, and the rival is played by Randall (Tex) Cobb, a professional boxer.

"We had 200 extras on a soundstage," said Tim Reid. At one point, Burton hurt Cobb. "We had to get a cut-man in here," said Reid. "They got a standing ovation after each scene."

For Tim Reid, who aspires to produce shows on his own, this is a season of learning. He shares executive-producer credits with the veteran Wilson and speaks warmly of their student-teacher relationship. "I've learned a lot about the politics of the position and the importance of good writing and a good crew," he said. "I'm proudest of my relationship with the crew." And he praises Wilson for sharing the production credit. "It takes someone strong, creative and open enough to make that commitment," he said.

Reid regards Wilson as one of television's finest writers -- "I'd put him with Steven Bochco and those people." He recalled telling a joke about a body and having Wilson come back six hours later with a script based on the story. Look for an upcoming episode in which a body disappears from the mortuary operated by Hanna Griffin (Daphne Maxwell Reid) and turns up in the freezer at the Chez. "This episode again will take people by surprise," said Tim Reid. "It's total slapstick and farce. It's fast; it hits a fever pitch and doesn't stop."

The Reids have appeared together before -- "We love working together," said Daphne. "That's probably why we got married. We're a good partnership." Tim and Daphne, who was the first black homecoming queen at Northwestern University 20 years ago, have beeen married five years this month. Each has a son by a previous marriage (hers is 16, his 21).

As a rule, "Tim comes up with good ideas, and I help facilitate them," said Daphne, noting that this time it's Wilson who facilitates.

If she has her way, Hanna will never marry Frank. "That way women can continue to think of Tim as single and men will continue to write me," she said. "There'll be no marriage as far as I can see -- the chase is the thing."

In a way, the show has become a child to the Reids. "You bleed about ratings," said Tim. "If someone says yours is an ugly baby, you don't discard the child, but you want people to like it. We want Nielsen to say, 'You've got a beautiful baby.'"