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I Don't Trust Restaurant Letter Grades

A, B, or C? IDGAF. Fancy letter grades doled out by clueless health department inspectors are less important than common sense and letting a restaurant earn your trust.

Grant Pardee

Photo via 12th St David

This first appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2014.

When you're choosing a place to eat, how much do you factor in the rating from the Department of Health? Personally, I barely think about it. Far more important to me is—is it close to me? Does the dining area look okay enough? If it's a restaurant or food truck I'm unfamiliar with, then I'll consider the Yelp rating. But it seems to me that if a restaurant passes my eyeball test—looks clean, no visible signs of serving actual garbage—it's probably fine, right? I mean, they're open. They must be doing something right. Right? I obviously have no idea what I'm talking about.

Los Angeles follows the A/B/C grade system with the rating displayed prominently on the storefront. While I've never actually seen a "C" in the wild, I have eaten at a few "B"s — typically food trucks and Chinese restaurants in my experience — and the only difference was that slight rush of feeling like you're being slightly dangerous, eating slightly on the wild side, and little else. If my experience was good and convenient, I'd return. The letter grade wasn't a major factor.

In Southern California, at least, it's also that it's statistically unlikely you're eating at a place that doesn't have a high rating. Looking through the LA County Department of Public Health website, there are only 63 "C" restaurants, compared to 1,458 "B"s and 25,566 "A"s.

What does it take to fall into the "C" or worse category? Clearly, pretty bad stuff: active rodent infestations; food that has non-food stuff in it; food directly on a dirty shelf in a refrigerator. In other words, places that likely wouldn't pass the eyeball test.

But it seems to me that if a restaurant passes my eyeball test—looks clean, no visible signs of serving actual garbage—it's probably fine, right? I mean, they're open.

In New York, restaurant owners complain about the rating system being unfair. According to them, the process is ridiculous and backwards. They say it bears no resemblance to actual food safety standards; that some of the regulations are obtuse and outdated. Even a world-class restaurant like Per Se was recently burdened with a "C" rating. New Yorkers take these grades very seriously; according to a study from NYC's health department, 88 percent of people consider the grades when choosing a restaurant.

Only a couple years ago, the UK's Food Standards Agency began handing out restaurant grades on a scale of zero to five. As in the US, some eateries' owners have complained that the system is unfair and needlessly nit-picky, and that they must wait up to six months to apply for a new inspection to boost their scores. In the meantime, their businesses suffer.

Some critics say that inspectors' knowledge of cooking techniques varies wildly, and some infractions have little to do with actual food safety. Of course, that's their side. When you look at the numbers, it seems clear that the DOH would greatly prefer it if you were an A restaurant. Still, there will be revisions made to the system to ensure that the process is to help the public, not punish businesses.

Me, I'm a creature of habit, and I enjoy frequenting restaurants and food trucks that I've learned to trust. There's a coffee shop at the end of my block that I eat at, like, once a week. It's not spectacular. The wait staff is indifferent. Still, it would have to get a pretty low score to keep me from returning. (Then again, if it were that low, why would I be there in the first place? I checked: They have a 97 out of 100, which does make me feel more secure about them.)

My parents owned a diner in small-town Ohio for about ten years, and I can remember they were always careful about the food inspector. They knew what a great burden it would be to fail. Sometimes there would be corrections that needed to be made and they would make sure to correct them and get it right. It clearly meant a great deal to them to be in line with those rules and there was a sense of pride that they never failed a test.

Kitchens for restaurants ought to operate at the same level of kitchens at home. Keep them clean and make sure the food is properly stored. There's not much else to it.

In fact, you can even take a test to see if your home kitchen would pass the standards of LA's Department of Public Health. I got a B, and I'd still eat here.