AFTER A FINE MEAL but disappointing service at the Inn at Little Washington, acquaintances of mine wrote the Inn to express their complaints. The response was a long and thoughtful letter from chef Patrick O'Connell and another that was a moving apology from the waitress.

Still that didn't satisfy the diners, who sent copies of the correspondence to me, noting that they considered it all words and no action. I asked O'Connell, who's spearheading Year of the Waiter, a national campaign to increase respect for the trade, what form an apology should take, and in what cases the restaurant offers another meal.

He reiterated a common theme: Complaints should be registered when the diner is at the restaurant, while there's still an opportunity to correct the problem. Instead, these diners left only a token tip, then complained by letter. But the fact that they had to ask the owners themselves for the check, because the waiter was not available, should have been enough to alert the restaurant. While the Inn appreciated the letter and found it useful, it didn't do the diners much good, since it was too late for the restaurant to make amends and retrieve the evening.

Actually, the two owners of the Inn had disagreed as to whether the diners should be offered a refund for their meal, and finally they decided that only if the food or the wine had not been to their liking should the customers be reimbursed. In this case, the service was not to their liking. And since they didn't pay for the service -- except for the $5 token tip -- there was nothing to refund, O'Connell said. If they'd paid for the service and then complained, he said, the restaurant would have returned their tip.

I thought that was the end of it, but there was more. Upon reconsideration, O'Connell decided to refund the cost of the dinner.

"After all," he had concluded, "in our league and price range we are dealing with the promise of a magical experience. Ninety eight percent of the time I think we succeed. Therefore, a refund of this kind would be in order for those times we do not, and may serve as an incentive to even avoid a small lapse such as this one again."

DOWN ON THE FARM --

Next came a letter from a woman who'd taken her husband to Evans Farm Inn for his birthday. She had complaints that ranged from the handling of the wine to the size of the duck portion to the restaurant's forgetting the birthday cake.

In this case she did complain directly to the maitre d' while she was at the restaurant, and he offered to remove the cost of her duck from the bill. But he removed only $8 of the $15.95 entree price, figuring that she should still have to pay for the salad bar. This time my calling the manager led him to investigate and agree that while there were two sides to most of the complaint, it would have been wiser and more gracious to remove the entire $15.95, and he immediately decided to invite the couple back for dinner on the house.

REVIEW FROM THE TERRACE --

A third complaint showed more generous action on the part of a restaurant, and demonstrated the kind of initiative I wish they'd all take.

Two women had brunch at the Watergate Terrace on Mother's Day and found much to criticize in the service. Thus, when the check came -- $50 for buffet for two -- they added a only a $5 tip on the credit card invoice. However, the American Express bill the next month showed that the $5 tip had been changed to $15 and the total altered. The customer sent a letter to American Express with copies to the Watergate and to me. Before I called, the manager had investigated, fired the waiter, and invited the customers to brunch on the house.

Not only did manager Paul Kamran handle the problem quickly and graciously, he insisted on sharing credit with another manager, Susanna Burke.

So what's a diner to conclude from these varying responses? While restaurateurs say that timing is all and that diners should complain on the spot, clearly they are not always immediately receptive to those complaints. And it certainly shouldn't take a call from a newspaper to get them to think through their response. The Watergate Terrace, alone among these three restaurateurs, took care of the problem without any prompting from the press (and didn't call to make sure I knew that the complaint had been answered). Clearly its focus was on the customers.