All the talk about New York City’s new health inspection letter grades should have urged restaurant kitchens to be on their toes. After months of writers, restaurant owners, various food authorities, and consumers all stirring the debate, a look to New York’s older, more experienced (at least in this matter) sister city, Los Angeles, shows that it’s not all that bad over there, 12 years after starting a letter grading system.
Restaurants there have B ratings, and the restaurant industry still thrives. Alan Leibowitz, a New York-based professor of food inspection turned high-profile violation appeals attorney, had one thing to say about health codes in L.A.: “Everybody’s got an A, it’s that West Coast frame of mind.” But will it be just as easy for New York restaurants to get passing grades? If the grading system’s reflective of the company it keeps, here in New York we can expect some sassy evaluations that tell it like it is.
Experts say that New York will never see the same percentage of A’s as Los Angeles. According to Andrew Rigie, director of operations at the New York State Restaurant Association, one fundamental difference is that certain education reforms, including a mandatory food-handling certification, were introduced simultaneously with the grading system in L.A. We’ve had those requirements for years in New York, so we can’t expect the same immediate compliance. For a New York restaurant to improve its grades, it’ll have to take other, arguably more thorough, routes.
In the meantime, letter-labeled windows are still few and far between on the East Coast. The new system may not be conducted under more rigorous standards, but it is definitely more involved. If a restaurant doesn’t receive an A-level inspection at first, they’re fined for their violations, put back in the cycle, and revisited soon after for another inspection. Both evaluations come together at the Administrative Tribunal where a final grade is determined. With grades pending, our current best source for the hazardous kitchens is the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s newly developed web site.
To determine which of New York’s kitchens were the sketchiest, we looked at the list of dining establishments cited with the most violations, according to the Department of Health’s extensive database. We decided to only feature sit-down Manhattan restaurants with table service, discounting delis, carry-out places and even diners (they deserve a list of their own). But wait -- before swearing off any of these offenders, Mr. Rigie reminds us that the “…inspection process can be very subjective.”
After all, are you in the same mood this morning as you are after a long day at work? Inspectors are people, too, and inspecting is a job. While they have a codebook to stick to, variables come up. Not to mention timing: Consider hosting an inspection during the chaos of a lunch rush versus the slower hours when service is winding down. Also, some violation demerits are administrative issues that don’t impact a restaurant’s sanitation. That being said, the grading information has been made accessible for consumer benefit, so use it at your own discretion.