Making the Grade

Restaurant grade

Last week we learned that fabled New York City restaurant Per Se received a large number of violations during its latest health inspection. This resulted in a "grade pending" while the restaurant appeals the report. (Some news outlets inaccurately reported the restaurant had received a "C" grade.)

When diners see a bad restaurant "report card," they may think of rats in the walk-ins, rotting food, or something even worse. But sometimes violations that earn a "critical" score are not as terrible as one might expect. For instance, not having a lid on an open drink in the kitchen often receives the same number of demerits as not storing food at the correct temperature. Even food storage temperatures can be subject to interpretation. Some health codes haven't caught up to sous vide methods, so even though it may be perfectly safe to cook food (if done for the right amount of time and with the proper materials) at a "danger zone" temperature, the restaurant will be penalized for doing so.

It is probably not surprising to anyone that when the health inspector isn't around to watch, egregious violations can occur. My husband used to work on refrigeration and ventilation systems in restaurants and witnessed several unsavory incidents involving rodents (both alive and dead) and moldy food stored on wet walk-in floors. Yet the restaurants in which these stomach-turning situations occurred nonetheless had passing, if not exemplary, scores come inspection time. (If you are keeping tally, my husband says that by far the cleanest eateries in which he worked were franchises where the logo has arches.)

I have my own criteria for deciding if I will eat at a restaurant. Are the bathrooms clean? Check. Are the tables and floors clean? Check. Do the servers appear to be well-groomed and interested in their duties? Check. Do I see a cockroach. No check! Is the serving wiping his nose and then reaching into the ice bin? Walk out the door. Did I see someone wiping the floor and then the counter with the same cloth? Run away!

I find it difficult to imagine that the average diner would find anything off-putting in the pristine kitchen of a Thomas Keller restaurant. I would eat at Per Se in a heartbeat, regardless of its latest grade (it had zero violations in a previous inspection). How much attention do you pay to a restaurant's health score? Do you find the grading system in your area to be adequate?



  • hillsboroks  on  3/9/2014 at 5:36 PM

    Fortunately for us in Oregon the various county health departments in coordination with the state health department post PDF copies of the reports on the twice yearly restaurant inspections at the State Health Dept. website so if you aren't sure about a restaurant you can quickly look it up online and read the entire inspection report in detail. This also makes is possible to see if they were dinged for minor violations or if they have real problems. My sister makes a point of checking a restaurant's report before she tries it. I don't know if others do this but at least you have the option here. There was one popular Mexican restaurant in our town we thought about trying until she referred us to their reports that showed they had major cockroach problems and continuing sanitation problems. We quickly crossed that one off our list.

  • rstuart  on  3/10/2014 at 9:00 AM

    Yep: we have the Dinesafe program here in Toronto, and if a restaurant has recently failed or gotten a "yellow" card, I don't go there, no matter how much I love it. I work in public health, and I know what it takes to fail, and have heard horror stories from our health inspectors..

  • sir_ken_g  on  3/10/2014 at 11:39 AM

    My Dad worked in commercial refrigeration. There were restaurants he would absolutely not take his family.

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