Biz thinks it has your number

MAYBE you've noticed: You walk into a pretty nice restaurant at lunch -- say, Pitfire Pizza Co. in downtown and NoHo, Tender Greens in Culver City, Lemon Moon in West Los Angeles or the Alcove Cafe & Bakery in Los Feliz.

You order and pay at the counter. Instead of food, you are handed a number -- a plastic tent-like thingy or maybe a little pole. Within 10 minutes, navigating by number, someone brings your meal. In all likelihood, you won't see this person again. (Tipping is optional.)

Such, in essence, is the "fast-casual" dining experience, a category that represents the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant business.

Some patrons are miffed, sensing a self-serve mentality at work, drifting upward from cookie-cutter chains to what seem like higher-end places. But the trade-off is simple, restaurateurs say: Customers get freshly made food with quality ingredients, real plates and flatware. Food gets to the table quickly and at a fair price -- usually around $10 for a meal.

Said Pitfire co-owner Paul Hibler: "You're able to have a smaller space and use less staff, and you don't have a fleet of waiters and all their intrinsic problems." (Like all those auditions requiring sick days?)

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