RESTAURANTS : How About a Little Lunch?

Bite Size, 3917 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake. (818) 848-GOOD. Open for breakfast and lunch, Monday-Friday. Street parking. No alcohol served. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Lunch for two, food only, $4-$10. Forget, for a minute, the way the place looks. (We'll come back to that.) Close your eyes if you have to and walk over to the counter. Take a seat and watch the action.

You could be forgiven for thinking, after a few minutes, that you've stumbled into a time warp, an American cafe in a small town a long time ago. The brothers behind the counter know everyone who comes in; the customers know each other too. And although you may be a stranger, you won't be one for very long.

"Let me guess what you do," says one brother, looking deep into your eyes. He's already asked if you're a "soup person" and allowed as to how his clam chowder is, "on a scale of 1 to 10, about an 8. Which is pretty good for a place like this."

He'll tell you to order the French fries too ("we hand-cut 'em and cook 'em in pure corn oil"), and ask if you want them crispy or medium ("medium's better; you can taste the potatoes.") He'll refill your small iced tea three times ("Oh, what's a glass or two?"). And then, when he's guessed all wrong about your work and stopped commiserating with the guy on your right who's not anxious to go back to the office, he'll worry about what you're going to eat.

"Now the concept behind the bite-size food," he'll tell you, "is that my brother and I were always going to places and wanting to taste everything. But you can't order a hamburger and a hot dog and a pizza without feeling stuffed when you leave. So we decided to make little bitty food. We've been thinking about it for 20 years."

He'll be pleased when you order a midget meal. And he'll smile happily when you bite into the bantam burger ("the buns are baked special"). He'll watch expectantly as you eat the Lilliputian felafel. And he'll grin when you finish every single fry. And then he'll urge you to try a diminutive dog, a peewee pizza, a teensy taco.

There is something almost irresistible about these bite-sized bits. You know it's just ordinary fast food--the hamburgers are skinny little patties in their miniature buns and other than their size there's certainly nothing remarkable about the tacos or the hot dogs or the small, puffy pizzas. But they're so darn adorable that you order them anyway. And then you notice that you are ordering alone.

Because these miniature meals are, of course, just a gimmick to get people in the door. But the regulars--the people who walk through the door day in and day out--are looking for lunch. So they don't bother with the small fry food. Look around and you'll see that almost everybody is chowing down on double cheeseburgers, home-made potato chips or fries, and full-size felafel. They're drinking hefty milk shakes and sipping sodas. You may also notice that few of them opt for the sandwiches (in any size, the sandwiches are fairly forgettable). Most of the customers, I imagine, don't even come for the food. They certainly don't come for the decor, which somehow manages to combine all the worst elements of convenience stores, fast food huts and coffee shops. No, they come because of Bruce and Mark, two all-American characters who seem to have been almost everything (zoologists, counselors, real estate salesmen) before they hit on the idea of selling really little lunches.

If you're the sort of person who goes out only to eat, skip the Bite Size experience. Your palate will never miss it. But if you've been wondering what happened to the great neighborhood joints, you'll be happy to know that at least one of them is alive and well, living in Toluca Lake and producing awfully cute food.

Imperfections Los Angeles Times Sunday August 7, 1988 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction The illustration for the July 31 article on bite-size portions ("How About a Little Lunch?") was drawn by Lyn Mayer Fenster, whose credit line was inadvertently omitted.
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