By Andrew Knowlton
Dear BA Foodist,
I'm originally from California, and I recently read that my new hometown of New York will require restaurants to display letter grades like the ones I was used to seeing in restaurant windows back west. What do the letter grades mean, and how much cleaner can I expect the restaurants to be?
Clarissa Long, New York
Letter grades in restaurant windows are becoming more popular. Shame a restaurant by exposing its dirty laundry, the thinking goes, and it'll quickly clean up its act. I know lots of friends and colleagues in California who will eat only at restaurants with an A in the window. They'll go to a B spot as a last resort. What about a C? No way. But when I ask them what the letter grades mean in terms of violations, no one has any idea. Without getting into it too deeply, the world of restaurant health codes and inspections is confusing and often mired in politics. And in practice, rules are sometimes ignored, such as the mandate for kitchen employees to wear disposable gloves. (This happens even at high-end spots where there's no telling how many people have handled your food.) I suggest relying on common sense when visiting restaurants. First, check out the bathroom. If it's clean, then it's likely the rest of the restaurant--and, most important, the kitchen--will be clean, too. Take a look at the waiters (and if there's an open kitchen, the cooks): Are they wearing stained shirts and dirty shoes? Are tables left uncleaned? Are the menus dirty? Are the floors and banquettes unswept? These are good indicators. Overall, I believe in trusting your gut reaction when you walk into a place. Use the letter grades as a guide if you want, but don't forget about common sense.
If you do, it just might cost you an awesome meal.
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