Restaurant 101: Scarlet Letters… or Blue…

As I was wolfing down my coffee and Nutella Toast a couple of mornings ago, I happened upon a clip from the Today show in which a health inspector checked out a local Bake Sale Diva’s kitchen.

The curmudgeonly, mustachio-ed inspecter hurrumphed at her open lightbulb above the stove, advised that she store her plates in a separate cupboard from any edibles, and cooed over the cooling capacity of her refrigerator. In the end, all things considered, the Bake Sale Diva ‘passed.’

In Los Angeles (and now New York City), it is not so much a matter of ‘passing’ for restaurants, though. In these cities, you must post a grade, like a Scarlet Letter, to your front window, so all who dine may see your transgressions.

As a diner, I am a fan of the letter grades, and an even bigger fan of the LA County Department of Health’s website feature that allows you to look up the particular infractions of a restaurant before dining there.  Milk held at inappropriate temperatures? A housepet in the kitchen? No thank you.

However, as a restaurant manager, I know that these ratings can fluctuate wildly.

In the ‘Today’ segment, the inspector checked the internal temperature of the lovely woman’s refrigerator, but did not note whether she stored her eggs beside a fully cooked pie, whether each container was labeled in English with a full account of its contents, or if any raw meats happened to be shelved above other foodstuffs. He noticed that she had an open bulb above her stove, but not whether her ceiling fan or air return vents were dusty.

Which seems silly in a home kitchen. In restaurant grading in Los Angeles, however, an establishment can lose as many points for a dusty ceiling fan as another that is discovered with urine on the kitchen floor.


I’m not saying to disregard ‘C’ ratings you find in restaurant windows…but a ‘B’ rating, after a little research, could turn out to be a combination of:

1. foods labeled in languages other than English
2. a sink that doesn’t reach 100 degrees fast enough
3. someone chewing gum in the kitchen
4. a dusty air vent
5. a leaky soap dispenser

All of which, in combination, reeks of laziness which will potentially lead to contamination, but aren’t many home cooks guilty of many similar behaviors?

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