SHE STEERS us to a table in the restaurant and hands us a watch. Our cute waitress' name is Alycia.
Get this -- we are to keep track of the length of time it takes the order, once placed, to get back to us.
Call it fast food, faster food, or -- food, but it is the all-American dream to get something free.
I know Pizza Hut has had a promo that allows you to get a free pizza if you don't get it in 5 minutes. Or something like that.
Yeah, yeah, I got a free pizza once, because my waitress slipped on some pepperoni and it took her three extra minutes to regain consciousness and deliver the pizza.
So when I sat down with the stop watch gimmick I knew in my heart I didn't really want any more high-tech food presentations interfering with a nice day.
My friend and I are south of Washington and we stop at Bennigan's, a nice chain restaurant with a kind of yuppie Irish pub theme. There's a bar, chairs that aren't nailed down, very few crying babies or women in curlers, some people in bureaucratic three-piece suits -- and stop watches.
''Hi,'' says Alycia. ''Do you want the express lunch for $4.95?
''Yep'' we tell her. My friend examines the stop watch like it was a hand grenade and checks it to see if it is working. She once ran track.
And our waitress is off on her 10-yard --. The watch is set at 1300. That's 1 p.m.
Now here's the Bennigan shenanigan. If you don't get your order in 15 minutes, it's free.
The waiters and waitresses seem to be kind of aerobic jumping beans -- most of them in track shoes.
Then I start to worry, as usual. Is this cricket? Is it fair to Bennigan's, whose cooks must have bleeding ulcers. The kitchen must look like an air traffic control tower on Labor Day.
So in the days of recession am I putting a cook out of business because he can't get the pine nuts on my salad in time, or worse, a whole chain of restaurants will go under if we get our lunches free?
Two Pentagon-looking guys in sharp threads have just sat down next to us. They appear to be talking defense budget. Then I realize with their heads together they are conspiring to get their lunches free. They look like they are planning a coup. They got their lunches free. Shame.
That did it for me. When Alycia brought our lunch I said, ''We're not timing you. We're still hungry, we want to order some hot wings, some french fries, shrimp and . . . we don't want the free lunch.''
She tells us what it's like to work at Bennigan's and run for your life. She says that they only give away about two free meals a week.
Alycia loves working there, and so does her husband.
''People are nice, and it's like working at a summer camp. We only had one used car salesman who tried to tamper with our watch. Many people ask us if they have to eat their lunch in five minutes.''
Sure, there are many places I'd like those stop watches: doctor's and dentist's offices, the post office, the car wash, car repair, check-out counters on sale days.
But on second thought, I'm not sure we want any of this, so many of us already have ''hurry sickness.'' Stop watches everywhere might make us freak out. We need to slow down and smell the roses, or anyway the chicken breasts grilling, and put ourselves on ''delay,'' ''hold'' or ''escape.''
The best things in life aren't always free.