Bistro California

For all my carping about fast food chains engulfing and devouring the world, I have to give them credit for design. If the goal is to move the sheep in and out at the speediest clip, they do it with minutes to spare. Contrast your average Taco Bell expedition with my last two experiences with home-grown wannabes, both of which must have been conceived by bastard bureaucrats from a liaison between the IRS and the post office. At ‘Wichcraft, there’s no overhead menu; only late in the game do you realize you need to pick up a menu in the front and puzzle over it before stepping into the order line, which is more an order clot of confused customers puzzling over menus. If you get your pricey sandwich to stay, you’re guaranteed the runner will make at least three laps around the room in search of your hungry face. The comment card on offer should have been the first indicator that this is not a chute but a maze; that device is the last refuge of flawed enterprises (sorta like sex: places that get it right never have to ask).

Pinch Pizza by the Inch, at least the one on Columbus, was even more of a Bermuda Triangle. Mensa should give credit just for finding the entrance. But the menu is like the agate on the back of your MasterCard bill. Not only do you have you decide what combination of the infinite variations you want. Then you have to do the math — two inches plus jalapenos times what? My head almost exploded, and I spent only a little more than a straight olive-and-pepperoni slice would have cost up the block. I have no idea how they can make it work with a runner, flags with order numbers, utensils required etc. But the staff was astonishingly pleasant. I would go postal in the first hour if I had to listen to two rooms full of squalling human larva while facing down a molasses-like stream of guidebook-carrying, Esperanto-speaking patrons studying the menu for longer than it takes to learn Latin. Plus the occasional childless New Yorker. Because special orders do upset us.