How to deal with a bad meal

Last night I went out to eat. I didn't tweet about it, post on Facebook or Yelp, or log on to Chowhound. Why? Because the meal was god-awful, a "clusterf&$k to the cappuccino," to paraphrase the great sage Jon Stewart. The usually bustling restaurant was quiet; the owners were off for the night. The service was bad, the food looked like leftovers from my fridge, and the pizza came 40 minutes after the rest of the meal. We had to ask three times for ice water, and when the wine was presented, it wasn't the one we selected. By the time he served the entrées, the waiter seemed so demoralized by the dysfunction in the kitchen that he chose to re-set empty tables rather than make eye contact with the guests. You get the picture.

My impulse wasn't to tell the world about my bad meal. It was to tell the owner and the manager. So I did. And no, I don't know them; I e-mailed them using the contact info on the restaurant's website. What was my goal - catharsis, a free meal, a grand gesture of apology? I realized what I wanted most was for my meal to be good next time.

I recently spent a useful morning at "Eat, Drink, and Be Social," a social-networking conference for the restaurant business. One discussion explored how restaurant owners and chefs respond to customers who've had bad experiences. All the participants reported responding to every single direct call or e-mail from diners, but they generally don't read Web postings on a daily basis. Restaurant professionals get fabulously useful feedback online. If they tried keeping up with the vast volume of it though, they'd go mad - not only because it would take away from kitchen time, but because of the difficulty of tracking down every blogger or poster in an effort to resolve problems. So if you truly want a problem resolved, put down your smartphone.

Here's how I handle a bad meal. First, I decide whether the problem is fixable. If my steak is overcooked or my fries are cold, I send them back to the kitchen. I give the restaurant a chance to make me happy in real time. But if it's clear that the restaurant is truly out of whack that night, I get out as soon as I can. If I'm up for a possible confrontation, I ask to chat with the manager before paying my bill. Otherwise, I ask for a name and an e-mail address or cell phone number. I give my contact information as well and ask for a call back the next morning. If it doesn't arrive, I call. When I do, I am very specific. I don't start with "It was a horrible experience." I say that the wine I ordered was wrong, or that I waited 40 minutes for the fig-and-prosciutto pizza, or that the veal chop was underdone. It is perfectly okay for a customer to be critical of a meal, helpful even. You're not merely the client; you're eyes and ears for an absent owner, and feedback from motivated foodies is a blessing.

I'm all for sharing news of great food finds online. But I draw the line at immediately disseminating anonymous diatribes when the news is bad. If you really want to ensure that your next meal is a good one, own up to your complaint and talk to the owner. Dining out isn't about playing "gotcha" with a restaurant. It's about eating good food, in a happy space, with good friends and conversation. If you care about all of the above, give feedback to the chef before sharing it with the community.