You are approaching your favorite restaurant and see a letter grade rating in the window. Should you eat at a restaurant rated B? How about C? What does it mean?
Starting in 1998, most (but not all) cities in Los Angeles County have adopted a restaurant grading system. In fact, Downey and Norwalk were among the first. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is responsible for conducting twice-yearly inspections. A perfect rating is 100, and a restaurant is docked a certain number of points for any violation, based on the associated public health risk. A score of 90 to 100 gives the restaurant a letter grade of A, and means “generally superior in food handling practices and overall food facility maintenance.” 80 to 89 results in a B, which means “generally good in food handling practices and overall food facility maintenance.” A score of 70 to 79 yields a C, which means “generally acceptable in food handling practices and overall food facility maintenance.” A rating between 0 and 69 represents “poor in food handling practices and overall food facility maintenance.” A restaurant that receives a score below 70 twice within a twelve-month period is subject to closure and legal action. Both the letter grade and the actual score must be prominently posted.
Of course, there are major violations that can close down a restaurant immediately, regardless of the score.
It’s important to note that these restaurant inspections are merely a snapshot of daily operations. Inspectors will generally spend a few hours inside the restaurant, and the inspection will be a fair representation, but cannot tell the whole story. So, it’s ultimately up to us to decide for ourselves whether to eat there. A low score does not mean that dining there will make you ill; nor does a high score guarantee you will not get sick. The inspection is a public service that gives us some information to go on.
More important than the final score or grade are the specific violations that earned the score. For more detail, it’s easy to look up the inspection report (Google “LA County Food Ratings”) and see what specific deficiencies were found. A B rating can be a result of having a few cracked floor tiles, a dusty ventilation hood, a fruit fly found at the bar, and perhaps an imprecise thermometer. Or, a live rat could be found, a 10-point deduction, but the overall rating could still be an A.
And that is what can be misleading about the letter grade. Your favorite restaurant may have obtained a letter A, but nonetheless have a serious problem with food handling. Closures can happen at any restaurant no matter what their grade. A study examined 1,069 food permit suspensions issued to restaurants. A whopping 95% of these suspensions were given to restaurants that were receiving an A or B grade at the time they were closed. (The most common automatic closure is due to finding live insects or rodents in the kitchen.)
In addition to paying attention to the letter grade and the story behind it, I recommend reading public reviews on websites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, taking a look at the bathroom as an indication of overall restaurant cleanliness, and previewing the menu. If, after all of this, you still have an interest in eating out, I wish you safe and delicious dining!