Ever since New York City’s Department of Health enacted a new restaurant grading system in 2010, restaurateurs and chefs have wrestled with the bureaucracy-laden system, as well as the public stigma that comes from posting anything other than a sparkling blue “A” grade your window. As the problems mount, lawsuits crystalize, and mayoral hopefuls like Christine Quinn and Bill de Blasio get involved (both are outspoken advocates for the system’s reform), there’s one thing that is certain: the Department of Health’s stringent regulatory framework could use some regulation itself.
The main grievances from chefs and owners include the arbitrary nature of the rules, the inconsistencies of the inspections, and the high fines for violations (a total of $51.4 million dollars collected last year). These issues have reinforced a fundamental distrust between the restaurants and the DOH, which is a shame—after all, public health and a flourishing restaurant scene are not inherently antipodal: Keeping diners safe, well-fed, and happy is in the interest of both parties. But the antagonistic relationship between the DOH and restaurants ensures a panic anytime a DOH inspector flashes his badge.
Without diving too deep into the tedium of policy, the grading system works like this: Every NYC restaurant is inspected at least once a year by the Health Department. An inspector comes to the restaurant during service hours, unannounced, and combs through every part of the restaurant, from the kitchens to the bathroom, looking for infractions. These infractions can be related to the environment (carbon monoxide levels), structural elements of the building (cracked floor tiles), maintenance (an empty paper towel dispenser in the bathroom), and—of course—food preparation. Infractions accrue points, resulting in a letter grade which must be posted publicly in the façade of the restaurant. An A means 0 to 13 points, a B means 14-27 points, a C means 28+ points.
The rules are vague, convoluted, and ultimately, up to the discretion of the individual inspector. Since the the grading system is not well understood by the general public, anything less than an A can conjure up nightmares of a decrepit, vermin-filled kitchen when in reality, the restaurant may have been caught on a bad day, when the inspector was in a foul mood. Moreover, a restaurant can end up with a B or C in many different ways, some of which diners probably wouldn’t care that much about if they knew the details. Sure, you would be grossed out to know that there were piles of trash lying around, or roaches near the walk-in. But do you really care that a cook’s cutting board is scratched, or that a completely bald chef isn’t wearing a hat? Probably not, but both of those are potential infractions.
If the grading system is to grow into a better managed, more consistent process (it is in its infancy), then addressing some of the arcane, autocratic, and just plain ridiculous rules is a good place to start. To demonstrate some of the fundamental problems with it, we’ve compuled the 10 DOH dumbest rules we think should be the first to go. Throughout, we’ve included other examples of not-that-gross infractions that can easily leave a restaurant with a B grade or lower.