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The Dirty ABC’s

Do restaurant health grades mean anything at all?

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If you’ve walked past Corner Bistro recently, you’ve seen the grade pending sign in the window. Use the Health Department’s nifty search engine, and you’ll discover that on September 14, an inspection resulted in 46 demerit points, for offenses including flies and the lack of a proper food thermometer. Under the new letter-grading system, that would’ve earned it a C (the worst possible grade), had the customary follow-up inspection not resulted in a more respectable 25 points—good enough to bump it up to a B. And yet, almost two months later, the restaurant still hasn’t posted its score. We’re guessing its regulars don’t care. Years ago, we watched a roach the size of a ketchup packet crawl up the wall right next to us, and we kept on eating.

Not to belittle food safety: Nobody wants salmonella. But under the new system, eateries receiving A’s know that they won’t be reinspected again for about a year, while those receiving a B are reinspected five to seven months later, and C’s are revisited in three to five. A month after the Corner Bistro’s B inspection, I found dirty dishes piled in an open trash can. Bloomberg’s favorite diner, Viand Cafe on Madison, at first scored a C-worthy 36 before a reinspection brought it to an A. Or consider the esteemed Le Bernardin. In August, it was initially docked 32 points (that’s a C!). On appeal, the number of points bumped up to 22 (B!), and the standard follow-up resulted in just ten points—an A. Le Bernardin manager David Mancini says they weren’t doing anything differently: “We did everything the same because one of the hallmarks of what we do here is trying to be consistent in everything.” He adds that the second inspector “really had a lot of experience.”

Restaurateurs who’ve criticized the grading system worry that inspectors have too much leeway. “Like everything else, it’s human,” says Mancini. “It’s not as simple as going through a red light.” Do we really think that six weeks from now (or even six days from now), Corner Bistro will still be doing whatever it did to get that C up to a B? For that matter, should we put much stock in any letter grades from the city after what happened with the ones it gave the public schools?

The city’s online FAQ page about letter grades boasts that “consumer awareness creates a powerful new incentive for restaurants to maintain the highest food safety standards,” but what are we really being made aware of? What does it mean when the violation is listed as “sanitized equipment or utensil, including in-use food dispensing utensil, improperly used or stored.” How was the utensil improperly used or stored? Down someone’s pants?

Whatever these inspection results mean to a customer who considers “greasy spoon” a term of endearment, it’s ultimately about restaurants paying for them dearly. The Health Department took in $38.4 million in fines during fiscal 2010—about $14.9 million more than it did two years ago. Next year, it expects to collect $44 million. When the city issued its first A grade, it held a feel-good press conference in front of the lucky deli—and neglected to mention that it was fined $800. Among the lapses: A cashier was drinking coffee.

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.


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