Choosing where to eat by browsing Yelp can be pretty tough. Every place seems to have at least four stars. And you can't always tell whether the reviews are legit.
A new feature on the user-review site may help make decisions easier by answering the question: Is a restaurant even clean enough for dining?
Yelp has begun posting health inspection grades with restaurant reviews, in a partnership with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. In the section listing information about WiFi-availability and noise level will be the restaurant's grade of "A," "B" or "C." Places that rate lower than a "C" receive a numerical score.
Restaurants are already required by LA County to post signs with their letter grade on their storefront. But, "by the time you pull up to a restaurant in a car and you see that thing on the storefront, it’s almost too late," said Luther Lowe, director of public policy at Yelp.
Los Angeles is the fourth city where Yelp has introduced this new feature. Diners in San Francisco, Louisville, Ky. and Raleigh, North Carolina started to see health ratings pop up on Yelp earlier this year. Lowe said each place had city officials eager to make public data more easily accessible.
Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, the county's public health director, said that restaurant grades have been available on the public health department's website since the program began in the 1990s.
But he acknowledged diners rarely visited the department's site when deciding where to eat. Then Yelp entered the picture.
"It’s become such a popular website and if you can have one-stop shopping for all that information, then you don’t have to go to our website," Fielding said.
Fielding said that posting inspection grades has been linked to a reduction in food-borne illness hospitalizations in LA County. It's too early to know yet, but Fielding expected the partnership with Yelp will only further promote public health.
"We want to make food hygiene and protecting customers top of mind at every moment, for every restaurant," Fielding told KPCC.
Don't expect all county restaurants to have a health grade listed on Yelp; the site is only posting grades for inspections completed after the public health department shifted to a new computer system for the program July 1. That's about half of the county's 4,200 dining establishments, Fielding said.
Also, the several L.A. County communities that do their own health inspections of restaurants — Long Beach, Pasadena and Vernon — are not part of the partnership with Yelp.
Meanwhile, those interested in how their favorite taco truck stacks up sanitation-wise will have to wait to find out. Grades for "mobile food facilities" aren't available online yet.
Lowe said that health grades are just the beginning of Yelp’s public service work. The company, he said, hopes one day public health officials will be able to use its restaurant reviews to detect food-borne illness outbreaks.
"So," Fielding said, "it’s not a human being reading Yelp reviews but an actual software program that says 'Oh somebody just said “tummy ache” after going to this restaurant."
Other red-flag words might also include "gross," "sticky" and "smell," according to early work by researchers.