ACCORDING TO THE complimentary souvenir place mat at Ivar's Acres of Clams, "The old saying was, 'When the tide is out, the table is set,' for a man could live in those days by beach combing and digging clams." When Ivar Haglund opened his first restaurant in 1938, his assertion that "man could live by clams alone" placed the clam center-stage in Seattle, evolving into his lovable, omnipresent, and deeply irritating "keep clam!" mantra.

Sadly, few clams are to be found on Ivar's Acres of Clam's current menu, which seems particularly regrettable with the knowledge that delectable razor clams are currently being dug on Washington's beaches. Apparently, that's about as close as local clams get to Ivar's Acres of (Everything but) Clams these days, as the imported (and often inferior) Manila steamers were the only representative of the clam family on the menu.

Acres of Clams is caught between two worlds, trying to serve the clientele of both, and falling short in both attempts. The tourists (those from Puyallup as well as Texas) are left looking for the breading on their modishly tiny oysters, while the locals ponder how their dollars might have been better spent. While the lighter and updated treatments of the fish and more innovative side dishes are earnest, the atmosphere and the prices give both the fish-and-chips crowd and the fine diners cause to permanently wander away from Pier 54. Gone are the baked potatoes, choice of chowder or salad, and white waitress outfits, replaced with Ivar's logoed polo shirts and wild rice.

Certainly Acres of Clams still has its charm. Marched deep into the restaurant's bowels by a friendly hostess, my dining partner and I are treated to exhilarating views of ferry arrivals (hopes for a spectacular Y2K-related dock-crash fade) and smartly-clad SFD fire boat operators returning our handsome fire-boat to its home at the historic Station 5.

The menu is divided into Seattle Today, Original Favorites, and Seasonal Specials, and is oddly selective with information. Some entrée descriptions fully depict accompaniments, while others downplay or totally omit key components. When we take more than five minutes perusing the menu, our server notes that "it's a tough menu!" and offers to recommend choices for us. In doing so, she unintentionally adopts the tone of a schoolteacher offering to help a first-grader write her own name. Still without bread, we consider making a recommendation of our own that some bread be brought to our table immediately.

We begin with a tragic baby spinach salad ($4.25), left to drown in honey-mustard dressing; pan-fried oysters ($6.95), pleasing indeed with their light and home-style breading, strangely served on a bizarrely massive and wasteful heap of cabbage and lettuce; and a smoked salmon chowder ($2.95), requiring microscopic examination for signs of salmon.

Dungeness crab cakes with fresh dill aioli ($18.95) are rich and middling. Grilled trout excels, with its tart tangerine butter sauce, spicy red chard, and wild rice ($14.75). Both are pricey attempts at the "new direction" thing, and both feel contrived.

Closer examination of the "original" section of Ivar's menu reveals five different kinds of fried fish and chips (baby prawns, halibut, Gulf prawns, cod, and a combination platter), plus some steamed clams. Most of our fellow diners stick with these tried-and-(not-so)-true choices, although an adjoining table complains about their oysters. When they visited from Whitehorse seven years ago, they had enjoyed giant deep-fried oysters; tonight, the oysters are pan-fried and small. When told by the waiter that "the big ones don't fry well," they ask, "Then how come they can do it at Spud?" This is exactly the Acres of Clams dilemma. The Spud crowd is long-faced because there's no deep fryer anymore, while fine diners despair when the menu's pretension exceeds its execution. Trying to modernize Ivar's Acres of Clams is as ill-conceived as updating the Bible.

Ivar's Acres of Clams

Pier 54 (foot of Madison Street), 624-6852.

Sun-Thurs 11 am-10 pm, Fri-Sat 11 am-11 pm. Full bar. $$.

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up