Open doors, hidden ratings News

| 02 Jun 2015 | 12:54

Summer weather is here, and sidewalk cafes have sprung into action. That means open restaurant doors -- enabling some eateries to conceal their less-than-stellar sanitary inspection grades.

The rating cards, those 8.5-by-11-inch, laminated signs, let diners know with a blue “A,” a green “B,” or a yellow “C” how the city’s Department of Health has graded the restaurant on its food sanitation practices. City law requires all restaurants to display their rating cards in a prominent, easy-to-see location, such as on a front-facing window or outside wall.

But a walk around the Upper West Side on May 27 reveals that more than a handful of neighborhood restaurants hide their grades behind a propped door, allow them to fall to the bottom of windows, or don’t display them at all.

Good Enough To Eat, located on the corner of Columbus Avenue and 85th Street, has been serving comfort food such as pumpkin French toast and white cheddar mac and cheese since 1981. According to the DOH’s website, the sprawling cafe is currently assigned a “C” rating. But you wouldn’t know it by visiting: Good Enough To Eat’s “Grade Pending” sign—meaning that the restaurant has appealed its grade and is awaiting a new round of inspections—is placed near the bottom of the entryway, concealed by a propped-open front door.

General Manager Christian Post denies that the sign is hard to spot—”I’m looking at it right now,” he said when reached by phone last week—and believes that the restaurant was rated unfairly.

“There’s a lot of reasons why we were misgraded,” Post said. “There’s a lot of subjectivity in the system. If the inspector is in a particularly good mood, maybe some things get overlooked. And if he’s in a foul mood, he might grade accordingly.”

Under the current system, restaurants are inspected by a DOH inspector at least once per year. These visits occur randomly and result in a letter grade that’s based on a restaurant’s violations, or lack thereof. Inspectors are trained to look primarily for kitchen issues that might pose health risks, such as pests or improperly stored food, but also examine structural issues. The more violations a restaurant accrues, the lower its letter grade drops. But restaurant owners have long complained that the system is often arbitrary.

“I’ve seen plenty of disgusting greasy spoons that have an ‘A’,” Post said. “To me that seems damn near impossible.”

Because the restaurant has appealed its grade, it’s allowed to display a “Grade Pending” sign, instead of its “C” rating card. Yet the manner in which that card is currently displayed would not pass muster with the DOH.

“As part of the inspection process, the Health Department checks to make sure a restaurant’s letter grade is posted conspicuously, and we will also respond to complaints about missing or obscured letter grades,” a DOH spokesperson wrote by email. “Violations for obscuring a letter grade, or not posting one, carry fines of either $500 or $1000, respectively.”

It’s difficult to locate Good Enough To Eat’s rating card without a little searching—but at least it’s there. The same can’t be said for Bettola, the Italian trattoria that extends onto Amsterdam Avenue between 79th and 80th Streets. According to the DOH’s rating card lookup, the restaurant currently has a “B” rating, but the card making customers aware of that is no where to be found. On a recent weekday afternoon, a woman who identified herself as Bettola’s manager said, “It’s grade pending. When we have the door open, it’s hard to see.” The woman then disappeared into her office without offering further comment.

Up the street, at Land Thai Kitchen, the “open door” explanation was in full effect. Like Good Enough To Eat, the restaurant has its “B” rating card posted in a side window, making it difficult to spot when the door is propped open.

“Sorry to be unclear about posting the ‘B’ grade in the window,” Land Thai manager Vanida Bank wrote by email. “Yesterday was a nice day to open the window, and we didn’t notice that the grade was hidden. We will post the grade somewhere else to make sure that everyone can see it.” When asked about the restaurant’s experience with DOH inspections, Bank said she had no comment.

No data is available to show how often the DOH cracks down on improper display of rating cards. And the DOH, for its part, strives to paint a sunny picture of the state of sanitation in city restaurants.

“Fines are not issued frequently, as the majority of the approximately 24,000 restaurants in New York City both have an A and clearly post their grade,” the spokesperson wrote.