Killer B: Why You Should Ignore the New Letter Grading System for New York Restaurants

A specter is haunting New York restaurants. An eight-by-ten placard sporting a big letter–A, B, or C–has put the fear in the hearts of chefs and restaurateurs around the city. As reported by Gadling last summer, letter grades issued by the Department of Health have begun appearing in restaurant windows, announcing to passersby and potential diners the hygiene grade the restaurant scored on its last inspection.

Good idea, right? The New York Times reported last week that nearly 60 percent of the city’s 24,000 restaurants have an “A” grade. But what of those eating establishments that have a lowly “B” or “C” grade? The Department of Health imported the idea from Los Angeles, where I grew up. You steered clear of restaurants with a B or lower, assuming that the kitchens must be dens of filth, crawling with unsavory creatures. And so I was all in favor of the letter grades following me from the West Coast. That is, until I started doing a bit of research and realized that a “B” grade in a restaurants wasn’t as frightening as it appears. You should ignore the new letter grading system for New York restaurants. Here’s why.

Let’s rewind three years to February 2007. That’s when someone captured on video a bevy of rats making themselves at home in a KFC in Greenwich Village. The copious amount of press it attracted forced the DOH’s hand and they began clamping down, popping into restaurants with more frequency. Two and a half years later they decided on the Los Angeles-style letter grades.

The overall point of the letter grades is transparency. Previously, in New York you had to log on to the Department of Health’s website if you wanted to find out what a restaurant’s score was at the last inspection.

Now that violations will result in a big fat scarlet letter affixed to the front of the restaurant, chefs aren’t taking any chances. In fact, they’re being too safe. Many are freezing ingredients when they didn’t before, for example, as well as making other compromises to their approach to ingredients that the wouldn’t have done before.

“The problem,” Steve Crane, the owner of Greenwich Village Italian restaurant Po, told me, “is that the DOH can go around until they find a violation.” Case in point: Po received a “B” when the inspector noticed the hose attached to the espresso machine was dripping water into a bucket, not into an actual drain. Surely, a violation. But surely not one that’s going to compromise the cleanliness of the food. Yet when potential diners see a “B” stuck to the window, they may think the worst.

That’s the concern of Andrew Rigie, director of the New York State Restaurant Association, who says that he’s concerned the grades can be misleading. “Either a restaurant is safe to serve food or they’re not. A or F. In no way is the restaurant industry trying to mislead the public. But we don’t want to turn people away because they see a B or C. When, in actuality, a B or C is safe, according to the DOH, to eat at.”

All that said, the New York State Restaurant Association, which was initially opposed to the letter grades, has told restaurants to keep mum about their criticisms of the letter grades in the spirit of diplomacy. Which maybe explains why several chefs and restaurateurs told me how much they hated the letter grades, but wouldn’t go on the record to voice their complaints.

So next time you’re in New York and the restaurant you had your heart set on has a big fat “B” displayed in the window, it’s not as eyebrow-raising as it might seem. It’s not because there were rats running around the front room; it’s more like the trash can in the corner of the kitchen didn’t have a cover or the espresso machine wasn’t dripping into a proper drain.