When Meals Go Bad 

If you've had a terrible restaurant experience, you're far from powerless.

I occasionally receive e-mails from readers who shelled out for what they considered to be horrible food, pissy service or, in one recent case, thinly veiled racism. Unfortunately, I can't do much about individual complaints unless they start to pile up. So what should you do if you're walking out of a restaurant feeling furious after a godawful meal? I called around to a number of restaurant folks -- who've been on both sides of the experience -- to see what they recommend.

Take it to the top. Every restaurant person I spoke to recommended that you alert the managers or owners toot sweet. "Tell the people who have the ability to make it better," said Allyson Woodman, general manager of Chow Lafayette. "It's important that restaurant managers and chefs have the opportunity to hear what's not right and respond, so they can leave a different last impression on the customer's mind. If you don't say anything, that's all you're ever going to think about the restaurant once you leave, say, 'That's the place where I had the awful waiter.'"

Put it in writing. Kristopher Ott of Berkeley's Bistro Liaison recommends a letter to the owners, especially if the restaurant is a place you normally go. "If we receive a letter, we definitely get in touch with the people and talk with them to reassure them that we do care and are paying attention to their commentary," he says. Sometimes the owners will respond with free wine or dessert, or even with a complimentary meal, but they should always start with an apology.

Go online. If you're not satisfied with the manager's response, Chowhound.com and Craigslist.org both have extremely active forums for Bay Area eaters, and folks there are quick to share praise and criticism. Epinions.com has a huge section for restaurant reviews, as does BestofAlameda.com (for the city of Alameda). And you can always cast your vote at Zagat.com

Call for reinforcements. God forbid it should ever happen, but if you've gotten sick or spotted one too many bugs, first call the manager as soon as possible, says Ken Stuart, director of the Contra Costa Environmental Health Department, which oversees restaurant inspections in the county. If the problem is serious or management won't respond to your complaint, alert your county or city health department (there's a state directory at CoCoEH.org). "Keep track of your symptoms and the food you've eaten so you can answer questions," Stuart recommends, and the department will send out an investigator.

And finally, take it to the streets. First, give the place a chance to redeem itself. If that's a bust, start blabbing. Word of mouth makes and breaks restaurants, as any savvy restaurateur knows. Telling your friends about a bad experience may not seem very dramatic, but it's what restaurants dread the most.

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