For years our walking excursions took us by Nicky's but not into the restaurant. Recently we decided it was time to find out for ourselves whether the rave reviews we'd heard about the restaurant's sandwiches were accurate. Now we know better than to walk past.

You can eat in or out, barside or tableside, streetside or in a backyard. The outside humidity drove use to the coolest room, which also happened to contain a giant-screen television, game machines and the salad bar.

With such distractions, it was difficult to get a 10-year-old to look at a menu long enough to make a decision. You almost expect mediocrity from the food amid all the entertainment dividends. But the friendly staff should be your first clue that, although nothing fancy is performed, a serious effort is made at quality dining.

The answer to Nick's success is simple: Man does not live by drink alone. He also needs reasonably priced food.

The sandwich menu offers many possibilities, from a jumbo frankfurter to large selections packed from the delicatessen. The waitress suggested either omelets or hamburgers if we were not interested in the regular sandwiches. In addition to these choices, the children were easily pleased when they quickly spotted two favorites -- spaghetti ($4.25) and fish and chips ($3.95).

Our son's spaghetti with meat sauce was a large portion steaming with a generous ladleful of sauce. The restaurant's attempt to provide reliable dishes that depend little on creative cookery works.

Our daughter was not disappointed with her choice -- a large serving of lightly breaded fish filets. If you have children with similar dining tastes, either of these items easily could have been shared. The same is true of the burgers -- they are large enough for young children to divide.

We opted for the burgers and realize just what a good deal the menu provided. All our orders came complete with salad bar, quite a dividend for hamburger orders (from $3.50 to $4.10). The salad bar can also be ordered a la carte at $1.50.

This is not a total lettuce invasion. There are enough fruit choices and salad varieties for many summertime diners to remain content with just a salad. Restaurants that offer a complete salad bar with hamburger selections often sacrifice either portion size of price. Neither is done at Nicky's.

The plain or generously topped burgers are large and arrive with a healthy portion of steak fries. The diner receives a complete meal for $4.

We were not surprised that the desserts were not homemade. The family sweet tooth did not go unsatisfied as we were just a few doors from Bob's Famous Ice Cream and needed an excuse to try his newest creation: orange chocolate chip.

Nicky's fulfilled its role as a first-class family stop for a variety of food moods. Its prices enhanced its attraction: dinner for four with draft beers, sodas, tax and tip totaled $26.16. The sundae delights at Bob's cost $4.12.

A softball tournament at the field across Wisconsin Avenue provided after-dinner entertainment. It was a fine ending for a perfect summer evening. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 a.m., Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m., Friday and Saturday. Atmosphere: Unpretentious but comfortable. Price range: From $2.50 for barbecue sandwich to $8.95 for a New York sirloin. Most entrees under $5. Reservations: For large parties. Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard and VISA. Special facilities: Sidewalk tables. Backyard garden restaurant. High chairs and booster seats. Outside dining more accessible for wheelchairs.