COMPETITION, it is commonly held in capitalist societies, is good for consumers: it increases choice, reduces prices and raises quality. But this law seems to crumble in the face of Hong Kong's mushrooming restaurants, which, with few exceptions, pass off second-rate food at first-rate prices. New restaurants especially can be guilty of arriving in a blaze of hype and glory (often using special start-up management) to attract customers and then go steadily downhill: the pleasing attention to detail is lost, service and portions are scaled back, corners cut. But longer-standing eateries, protected by insufficiently vocal or discerning consumers (spending, perhaps, company money rather than their own) - or those who simply register their protest by going elsewhere - also let standards fall. Examples of this abound. Yorohachi, a Japanese restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong which used to dish up succulent rolled beef and above-par sushi at below-par prices, appears to have fallen apart at the seams since chef Osaki-san headed back for his native Japan earlier this year. Post-Osaki meals have included marbled cuts of tuna sashimi - complete with tough gristle and solid wax-white veins of fat, surely one of the most unappetising feasts known to non-cannibals - which, after much complaining, was eventually replaced with glistening, promising looking slices of fish meat, which had come straight from the freezer, as testified by frozen hard centres and a watery taste. Others have also reported disappointments at Yorohachi: slap-dash cooking that forgets to go easy on the oil and omits to lighten the taste with liberal splashes of rice wine. Yorohachi says there have been no complaints either before or since chef Osaki's replacement - but promised to look into the matter. Shoddy service infiltrates many long-standing restaurants, and completely marred an Easter weekend brunch at Mad Dogs on Wyndham Street - a Virgin Mary came without lemon or celery, and very low on the spices, brown toast turned up as white (leaving diners to stare at coagulating eggs and skin forming over baked beans as the error was rectified) and the bill tabled the offending Virgin Mary as a Bloody Mary. The experience was made even more galling by overhearing one of the waitresses tell her colleagues they were all on time and a half - and the fact there were only four people dining at the time. Perennial stop-off La Bodega generally manages to produce reliably decent tapas, although surly service has spoilt more than one meal there - one bad night saw the waiter refuse to serve broccoli with garlic. A Spanish restaurant without garlic? When finally the vegetable was brought to table, its lurid yellow hue offending all concerned, he snapped: ''It wasn't like that earlier.'' Old hand Oliver's, whose sandwiches have been the toast of the territory for homesick Americans and Europeans for years, has been caught palming customers off with stale bread and fatty meat is par for the course - as it is at Lucullus, where smoked turkey can keep you chewing until dinner time. But at Oliver's - an established chain in a burgeoning sector - a new and avowedly more pro-active management intends to meet complaints head on, thereby seeking to improve quality. The stores are introducing free-post customer comment cards (addressed direct to the general manager) and standardising training to head off complaints on the staff front. More reassuringly still, the new management (general manager Bruce Jackman and operations manager Nigel Rivers have been in place for less than three months) plans to ensure freshness by instructing its suppliers to provide foodstuffs in smaller sizes - starting off with five-grain bread which Mr Jackman admits sometimes failed to meet his own standards of freshness. ''It was on five-grain bread that I received most feedback from my wife, and it is the one I myself eat,'' Mr Jackman said. ''The supplier supplied very large loafs, and that meant that sandwiches made at five o'clock might be made from a packet which had been open all day. Now - as of three weeks' ago - packages can be opened as they are needed.'' Another place where competition is blossoming while standards are falling is on the airlines. Food - at least to the marketing chiefs - is becoming increasingly important as the airlines jockey for market share. However, it is sometimes hard for the consumer to appreciate this. A Cathay Pacific flight last month, from Hong Kong to Penang, featured two choices: fried fish or stir fried chicken. Fried food is not everyone's favourite fare, especially when flying, and is certainly not improved by poor quality (flaccid beans, fatty tough chicken, ghastly vinegared sauce). A long hair was retrieved from the chicken, which the purser grabbed, glaring: out of the 14 languages spoken by the cabin crew, he could not muster an apology in one. Adrian Ort, catering services manager at Cathay Pacific's in-flight services department, makes two points: the increasing proportion of Asian travellers means more Asian food is being offered and, given flight restrictions and the need to re-heat food, fried meals tend to offer the best results. ''A light meal might look well on the ground, but in an in-flight environment it might not work at all, so we really have to strike a balance,'' he said. ''These are Asian dishes - and there is quite a big difference between fried and stir-fried - and unfortunately it is very hard for us to reproduce Asian steamed dishes, especially Hong Kong dishes. It is hardly possible to do these dishes nicely.'' Likewise Asian grilled food - which should be crisp - becomes soggy with condensation when reheated. ''The biggest challenge for us is to reproduce Hong Kong-style food,'' he said. ''Northern Chinese food is easier to reproduce, but Hong Kong-style Chinese is very hard to reproduce on board an aircraft.'' He justifies dishes offered on the return flight - to the untrained eye, curried lamb or curried chicken - as widely different to Malay or Chinese taste buds, the lamb rendang being a drier dish and observes that those preferring lighter meals have access to a wide choice of special dietary-religious meals that must be booked in advance. Consumers must bear partial blame for shoddy food which they pay for and should themselves become more pro-active, said Mr Jackman, who believes part of the problem is knowing where to direct complaints. ''Most of the time people complaining to the local branch manager will not in fact achieve anything at all. ''Apart from him, they don't know who to complain to - that's why Hong Kong has a very high proportion of complaints in the press .''