Slade's Ballston Common Mall 4238 Wilson Blvd., Arlington 243-8830 Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Bar stays open one hour after kitchen closes. Prices: Appetizers and side dishes 95

to $4.95, entrees $5.75 to $12.75. Cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express. Nonsmoking area available.

The aroma from the hickory grill drifts out into the shopping mall, tempting passers-by to follow their noses to the door of this two-month-old restaurant.

Cords of hickory logs are stacked in the dining room. Indeed, most of the hot entrees are hickory grilled, generally to good effect, giving the meats and fish a subtle smoky flavor that enhances rather than overpowers.

The atmosphere is informal. Polished wood flooring amplifies the noise, but soft lighting from table lamps and the warm glow from pink overhead bulbs have a quieting effect, especially at night. There is a large, 60-seat rectangular bar and three dining areas between the door on Wilson Boulevard and the entrance from the mall.

The food, while not reaching great culinary heights, can be pleasing: nicely seasoned french fries and the thick chocolate milkshake fortified with a whole egg plus three scoops of ice cream, heavy cream and Hershey's syrup. The standard American fare occasionally suffers from inconsistencies and other flaws.

Choices range from snacks to full dinners. Entree prices fall into two categories: under $7 and over $10, with the majority, including the tasty chicken dishes, in the first group. I recommend the juicy hickory-grilled chicken brushed with barbecue sauce and topped with a slice of ham and Monterey Jack cheese, although mine suffered a bit from overcharring. The marinated barbecued chicken breast is even better, adorned only by the sweet and tangy tomato-based sauce.

A catch-of-the-day special, a thin but decent-sized portion of grilled swordfish for $11.95, was deftly cooked, but nearly overwhelmed by an injudicious application of herb butter.

The rack of ribs and the fried shrimp and crab cake platters come in half portions. While the butterfly shrimp are the best of the three, the taste is unexceptional. The ribs are ho-hum in flavor and meatiness, and the thick crab cake had too few crab chunks and too much salt.

The hamburgers, all $5.75, are acceptable and come with familiar toppings. There is a tendency to overcook, so be prepared to be insistent if you want yours medium-rare.

The Cobb salad has an adequate assortment of fresh greens and vegetables with bacon, egg and croutons, but the fried chicken nuggets are wrapped in a spongy batter with a taste reminiscent of doughnuts -- an odd taste sensation to be sure.

There is a good house salad, big enough for two, which accompanies some of the more expensive entrees, and several pleasant homemade dressings, such as a sweet vinaigrette and a mild honey mustard. Both salads come with a piece of cheese toast also available as a side dish, but my samples tasted like a not-very-crisp toasted cheese sandwich.

A good appetizer choice is the generous bowl of chunky guacamole with piquant salsa, though the chips leave tiny oil slicks on your fingers.

A delightful medley of herbs enlivened a couple of cream soup specials. One was the unusual combination of mushrooms and artichokes, and the other had chunks of baked potatoes. Slade's chili is also tasty, with a firm kick of spices buffered by a sprinkling of cheese on top.

The two homemade desserts can be quite good, although in the case of the pale walnut cobbler, it took a second try to get a version that was not too sweet. The rich and crumbly fudge nut brownie, heated and topped with vanilla ice cream and the optional Kahlua, was a hit the first time.

Service is usually swift. The energetic young staff, outfitted in white shirts and tan pants with long white aprons, hustles by in fast forward, yet usually has time to be accommodating.

Sometimes, however, the staff members are so eager to please that they forget to mention the extra costs when they cheerfully offer to bring two or more salad dressings on the side, or cheese and bacon toppings for the baked potato.

Although the kitchen needs some fine-tuning, if you're in the area, Slade's is an attractive, low-key spot to grab a bowl of soup or chili, a shake, or barbecued chicken.