As sundown on the south bank of the York River, the smell of fish hangs heavy among rococo statuary and ailing palm trees. Lines of diners loop in the gravel parking lot. Nick's Seafood Pavilion, the legendary home of gastronomical virtue served amid a motley of art, is cooking.

"Ah had," says Nick, the owner, his Greek accent as heavy as the smell of fish. "We always busy. We known the world over, I tell you. The kings and the queens, the stars and the politicians, we got 'em all here."

Nick Mathews, 72, swept-back white hair, nice brown suit, cigar in left breast pocket, smell of cologne, is known inside his restaurant as Mister Nick. His wife, a Greek immigrant with thick brown hair and a predilection for chopping air with her right hand during conversation, is known as Miss Mary.

With the help of up to 100 cooks, waiters, waitresses and a Vietnamese maitre d' who six years ago was a general commanding 1.1 million troops, Mister Nick and Miss Mary run what is often called the best restaurant in Virginia.

Couples have been known to drive 400 miles in one day just to eat the shrimp casserole. Ann Landers, in a radio show a few years ago, referred to Norfolk (40 miles to the south) as "that Virginia city that's near a good seafood restaurant."

U.S. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who gave Mister Nick the Bicentennial pin he wears in his lapel (he also wears a tie clasp given him by vice president Nelson Rockefeller), describes the food at Nick's Seafood Pavilion as "excellent, just excellent."

"My wife [Elizabeth Taylor Warner] and I, whenever we are in a radius of 10 miles, we will deviate from our course to go there. Not only because of the food, but because of our friendship for these two great Americans," Warner says.

Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton has eaten there countless times, according to Paul Edwards, his spokesman.

"I don't think any Virginian, especially an elected official, can go long without eating at Nick's," Edwards says.

According to Mister Nick, there are two things in this riverside village that are not for sale. The first, the Department of Interior's holdings, which include a 5,000-acre national historical park commemorating the surrender of the British army under Lord Cornwallis to George Washington and his victorious rebels in 1781. The second, Mister Nick's holdings, which include Nick's Seafood Pavilion.

Now Mister Nick is quite willing to give up other things besides his restaurant for the sake of Yorktown, a town of 400 that he refers to as "the beginning of our freedom." He and Miss Mary paid the town's light bill in 1972, when Yorktown went into arrears by $212. "How anybody can stand this historic Yorktown to be in dark. I always hate the dark," Miss Mary said at the time.

That same year, Mister Nick and Miss Mary gave the Commonwealth of Virginia 25 acres of prime river-front property (for which developers had offered them $700,000) to build the Yorktown Victory Center. The state delayed for five months before accepting the land and Mister Nick threatened a congressional investigation if the state didn't take it.

But the restaurant, which over the past 36 years has transformed Nick and Mary Mathews from poor immigrants to proud benefactors, will never be sold or given away, according to the owners.

"This place was nothing when I came to Yorktwon and started working 18 to 20 hours a day," Mister Nick says. "I was a chef, a waiter and a dishwasher; everything me.

"God gave me the instinct to give people a little more than they deserve. I learned how to be the best chef in the United States in Pittsburgh, then I went to Chicago and then I went to Brooklyn. In New York one day, in the Greek Orthodox cathedral, that is where I met Mary. She was singing in the choir. I sort of picked her up."

Mister Nick hasn't cooked for four or five years. He's written up his recipes and spends seven days a week walking around the restaurant making sure they are followed. He says he's particularly proud of his seafood shish kebab.

"Shish kebab is my creation. I thought it up about seven or 10 years ago. It has shrimp, scallops, lobster, onion, tomato, mushrooms -- all cooked in real butter. Ah, hah, they talk about it all the way to California," Mister Nick says. It costs $10.

In Nick's Seafood Pavilion there are three major dining rooms. The old dining room, the Triton Room (named after the sea god who had the torso of a man, tail of a fish and carried a conch-shell trumpet) and the Nile Room (so named because it has an imitation Nile River fountain).

Mister Nick enjoys art, but he defers to Miss Mary in any systematic discussion of the Nick's Seafood Pavilion collecton."My wife like all the art," he says.

Miss Mary, interviewed in the Nile Room near a gurgling fountain, 14 different bronze and marble statues, an avocado tree, a mango tree and a philodendron plant, said that as she and Mister Nick expanded the restaurant four times they found themselves in constant need of something to cover the walls.

"I love mythical. I love Biblical. Something to give you spirit, give you the heritage. So for 36 years, any time religious, Biblical or mythical art is available, I buy it," says Miss Mary.

in the three dining rooms, which seat 450 people and are almost always packed with customers on weekends, there are 24 paintings, scores of small statues and an overwhelming presence of purple. All the walls are purple.

"We've had 15 years of purple," says Miss Mary, proudly. "It gives a little life. We had the white before, then we came to the purple and we like the life."

The prize of the art collection, most of which was purchased in Florida when Miss Mary went there to get away from cold, wet winds off the York River, is a statue of an Egyptian princess holding the baby Moses. It is the highlight of the Nile Room and before it came to Nick's Seafood Pavilion it stood in a John Wanamaker department store in Philadelphia.

When lunch and dinner is served at Nick's, Miss Mary works the cash register, Mister Nick walks around smoking cigarettes and the maitre d', Dong Van Khuyen, a former three-star general and chief of staff of South Veitnam's army, seats customers, who often stand in line for 1 1/2 hours to get in.

Khuyen (pronounced "Quinn") came to Nick's looking for a job in 1975, after he was flown out of Saigon on one of the last American helicopters to leave Vietnam before it fell to the communists. For nearly five years, he has been quietly handling the crush of dinner at Nick's.

"He is most outstanding," says Mister Nick. "He always tends to business."

And business hasn't stopped growing. On Mother's Day, Nick's served 600 people, a record crowd, with lines winding around the parking lot.

Mister Nick says his success is no stroke of luck: "Hard labor, decency and sweat on the forehead, that's how I made it."