401 M St. SW. 554-2200. Hours: Sundays through Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fridays from 11 a.m. to midnight; Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Atmosphere: If you've been to any of the "well-call-your-number-when-it's-ready" pizza, you won't be lost here.

Price range: The pie's the limit, from a small plain pizza at $2.45 to the largest shoot-the-works model at $7.95; many sandwiches, subs and other orders under $4.

Credit cards: Cash-and-carry is the pattern.

Reservations: Forget it.

Special facilities: Accessible by wheelchair. Booster chairs available. Parking in the shopping mall lot for a fee, or else you cruise.

Our story this time begins not where it winds up, but instead a block or two away, in momentary grief along a rain-soaked Maine Avenue waterfront. In the back seat of the car, waiting for old guess-who to dash through the puddles for a situation report from inside the Flagship Restaurant, are two 9-year-old ladies all gussied up for Saturday soiree.

My wife could tell already-it was packed, and there were busloads of people decked out in shipping tags for their tours, all waiting in a long line under a dripping canopy. The wait, according to the house statistician, would be about 45 minutes.

For them, maybe. I forgot who among us said and who just thought it, but you probably know the next line: " Now what?"

Judging from the pitch, I thought to myself, we'd better roll, fast.

Suddenly, as we taxied along the M Street runway in front of something called the Waterside Mall, four little bug-eyes went "TILT" at the sight of a pizza parlor.

Now, pizza wasn't exactly what Old Dad's juices were up for, but heck, any port in a storm. So we tumbled into the Village Inn, which looks like a Southwest second-cousin of Shakey's.

To the left of a long couter, near a large wall covered with corny snapshots of customers, is where one puts in for the pies.But if, like us, you are not familiar with the Village Inn chain, you first grab some menus and a table somewhere along a lengthy wall of padded benches, beneath the red embossed wallpaper (phony felt) and unavoidably within easy earshot of the old Wurlitzer jukebox on the little stage at the back. Here, for 25 cents you can listen to both sides of a 99-cent record. Nearby, too, were two pinball machines and one of those TV games.

The menu-get this-is "for sale for just $2," presumably because it is a collection of two-bit one-liners that kids always eat up along with pizzas.

These tee-hees serve to introduce the non-pizza fare, which includes 72 entries of sandwiches, hot dogs, subs, hamburgers and spaghetti dishes, as well as six renditions of chili.

For example, there's No. 16, "The Bermuda Triangle. This sandwich will disappear quickly and you won't know why . . . Ham covered with chili, lettuce, tomato and cheddar cheese-onions if you ask for them, served hot, $3.25."

Here's another knee-slapper: No. 2, "The Jimmy Carter. Half-pound crushed peanut shells, served on toast, always with a smile, $550.00." (The description, as well as the price, are inflated).

While you're doubling over in hysterics at that one, a mention of the parlor's health food section, which seems to be a series of familiar sandwich concoctions served on pita bread, for $2.15 to $2.45.

Meanwhile, back under the little double-globe lights over our table, the decision was pizza all around. For Stephanie, our daughter's bubbly pal, the choice was a thick crust, plain pizza for $2.45-whic was easily 10 inches in diameter and pleasingly puffy.

There are deep-dish pizzas, too, but our daughter went the other direction and tackled a thin-crust pepperoni, $2.75. My wife and I picked a thin-crust, double Pizza Royal, which includes sausage, mushroom and pepperoni in a 15-inch-diameter model.

To embellish this report (if not our meal), my wife checked out the soup-and-salad bar. There, she said, one finds no headliners, unless one is bowled over by salads with standard dressings and synthetic bacon bits, from 99 cents with a food purchase to $2.25 for soup-and-salad.

The girl could only crash through about half of their "small" orders, but no matter: A most willing young man behind the counter foiled and boxed all the unconquered slices for eventual home consumption.

Over the last of two colas and a pitcher of beer, we paused briefly for some lively entertainment-an unsolicited disco number by our young ladies. There being no charge for that, even if they got one out of doing it, the tipless tab for the works (you serve yourself here) came to $16.11. That, on a stormy night on the waterfront, can make a night at the Village Inn a comforting experience.