The Scarlet Letter: Restaurant grades reconsidered

A restaurant in San Gabriel with the dreaded
A restaurant in San Gabriel with the dreaded "C"
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

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If you’ve eaten in an L.A. County restaurant this century, you’ve seen them: the letter grades handed out by the public health department. They seem to be popular, and have just been adopted in New York City. But how did they get there … and more importantly, do they really keep diners safe?

Is it safe to eat at a restaurant with anything less than an A? When you eat out in L.A. County, you don't often see a place with a B; C's are even more uncommon. In a survey by L.A. County, just 3 percent of diners said they'd eat somewhere with a C.

But somebody must keep going to those C restaurants. Are those brave customers just lucky? Joel Grover thinks so, he's an investigative reporter with KNBC 4. "To get a C — I know this — a restaurant has to be filthy," he said. "They have to have numerous serious violations, and they have to have many minor violations too."

Joel is one of the main reasons we have public grades for restaurants here. Back in 1997 he was working for CBS and got a tip about a local restaurant with a dirty secret behind their kitchen doors. The story sets off sparks across the county. Politicians demanded answers, bureaucrats scrambled to respond, restaurants were shut down.

Grover had exposed a system that simply didn't work. The inspectors' criteria was too subjective, scores weren't public, places with repeated violations could stay open almost indefinitely. But within months, the county redesigned the system from the ground up: scores are now hard and fast, restaurants that pose a threat to the public health are shut down immediately and, most importantly, grades showed up on restaurant windows.

"We needed a system that could be applicable and enforceable in a reasonable fashion in this 10 million megalopolis called Los Angeles County," said L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. He was one of the system's most vocal supporters. "And I think the grading system that we came up with achieved that. It was manageable, administratable, if you will, to give the public the information and the confidence that they needed."

Which is basically true: by looking at the grade on the window, diners can see that a restaurant with an A scored high on their inspection. But not much else.

How inspectors arrive at that grade is a little more complicated: scores are determined by two types of violations: minor ones — stuff like missing light bulbs and dirty bookshelves — cost restaurants one point each, while major violations — things like food that's not kept at the right temperature, foreign objects found in food — cost operators five points.

In theory, that means a restaurant can get the 90 points needed for an A with two major violations, or a B with 11 minor ones. Proponents of the system, like Joel Grover, acknowledge that the grades can be a little unclear at times, but that's beside the point.

"I think the real power of the grading system is that it forces restaurants to pay closer attention to the health code and follow the law and be clear," he said. "Because most restaurants know that they are gonna lose business if they get a B or a C or a bad grade.

So restaurants basically have no choice but to get A's. Remember, virtually no one will eat at a restaurant with a C. If you've read the LA Times, you might have seen stories about how the department's regulations have come in conflict with traditional cooking methods for things like Asian noodles and Mexican cheeses.

Some diners have stopped paying attention to the grades altogether. Take Bill Esparza. He runs a food blog called StreetGourmet LA and has lent his expertise to the Food Network and Bravo. He thought it odd that a lot of corporate fast food restaurants often get A's.

"And a really great Chinese restaurant that has incredible food and natural products has a C," he said. "That, to me, doesn't seem like the system works in that instance."

Maybe there's a better way to inspect restaurants and inform diners. Orange County has a pass or fail system; same with Pasadena and Vernon, Long Beach does too, and like the rest of LA County, they reacted pretty strongly to Joel Grover's report.

But they went a slightly different route. If a Long Beach restaurant violates the health code, say the deep freeze wasn't cold enough, instead of giving out a bad grade, they'll give them a check mark.

That's right, a check. It goes on a large sign right on the front of the restaurant. "We have fourteen categories on our posting, anywhere from food handling to improper temperature, water temperature, restrooms, pest control, and so on," said Nelson Kerr, of Long Beach's Bureau of Environmental Health.

"We will check the box that says food temperature. And you'll know that there was an issue with food temperature, and also the complete inspection report is available for anybody that wants to see what the complete story is."

So diners in Long Beach have a better idea about what — if anything — went wrong at a restaurant, but unless they ask for the full report, it'll be hard to see the specifics. It's clear that regulators can't please everyone, and while informing the public sounds nice in theory, it's a little more tricky in practice.

Esparza, of the StreetGourmet LA blog, doesn't buy it.

"I don't tend pay attention to the grades that much. I'll notice it, but I travel a lot. I'll eat at street stands, that's kind of my specialty. There are no grading systems in Brazil, Mexico and Columbia. I just, it doesn't even phase me. I use other skills to judge. I've only had food poisoning twice in my life, and it was both at Jack in the Box in my 20s for the Ultimate Cheeseburger."