Nina In New York: Health Grades Get A 'B' For 'Barf'
A young professional's take on the trials and tribulations of everyday life in New York City.
By Nina Pajak
Years ago, I became aware of the website that provided a restaurant's health grade as well as a pretty comprehensive history of its violations. For a week, I obsessively searched all the restaurants I'd ever visited and those I planned to try. After that, I forced myself to quit cold turkey and willfully forget the URL. The information was unpleasant, unnecessary, and an all-around big, fat bummer. In retrospect, had I allowed myself to keep checking, I would probably be ten pounds thinner and a few years worth of restaurant meals richer. Hindsight is everything.
Flash forward to last summer, when every food purveyor from Gray's Papaya to Daniel was obliged to display its health grade prominently for all the world to see. Self-preservation had allowed me to forget about my former dangerous pastime, so I was thrilled to be given this gift of knowledge. As an avid stuff-a-phobe, the idea that I could instantly know which restaurants are ridden with vermin, e-coli or employees who refuse to wash their hands was dizzying. I no longer needed to be afraid of what I didn't know. The creeps had been branded with lurid Bs and Cs for my judging pleasure.
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It didn't take me long to become thoroughly annoyed by it all. I liked getting my sketchy 3:00 a.m. pizza without having to wonder why the corner deli got a "B." Searching for the perfect restaurant to please a group of people was hard enough without the added worry that comes with a restaurant's dubious "grade pending" rating. Now that we are burdened with this awareness, it has suddenly become so very clear that ignorance is, if not bliss, at least worth the unfettered enjoyment of a well-prepared meal.
And to add an extra-annoying layer, the grading system is not to be taken at face value. For instance: as it turns out, my corner deli's "B" is the result of food being cooked to below 140 degrees and improper wiping up of surfaces in between prep. I can live with that!
On the other hand, one of my favorite Italian neighborhood places also got a "B," but in their case it was for the presence of mice and the repulsively categorized "filth flies." That, in my book, is unacceptable. A very chic and popular midtown restaurant somehow has a whopping 66 violation points and yet managed also to maintain a "B" grade. What? System fail. A nearby convenience store with a "grade pending" sign is simply appealing a single 2-point violation of a dented can. So, they're apparently guilty of nothing more than obsessiveness. How helpful is any of this to the average consumer? Do we have to look up every single restaurant to really determine whether we feel comfortable eating there? The difference between an "A" and a "B" can be an "improperly stored utensil," but both places could have roaches. This system is confusing, untrustworthy, and misleading. And now I'm back on that damn website searching for every restaurant I've ever enjoyed.
It's enough to drive a person crazy. Believe me, I am all for rigorous standards of cleanliness and public health. But I happen to think we were all better off before we got this "help." The old system worked perfectly fine: if you see a roach or a mouse, leave and don't return (also, refuse to pay your bill). If a place looks visibly dirty, enter at your own risk. And if the food tastes good and has never made you or anyone you know sick, don't push your luck by asking too many questions. It's a little unscientific, but it won't lead you astray. Sadly, what they say is true—you can never go back. Our eyes have been opened and I'm not strong enough to close them and pretend that this information isn't right at my fingertips, begging to be found.
On the bright side, perhaps I'll be able to use this revelation more wisely this time around. I did quit the gym, after all. I may as well quit eating, too.
Dear Readers: While I am rarely at a loss for words, I'm always grateful for column ideas. Please feel free to e-mail me your suggestions.
Nina Pajak is a writer and publishing professional living with her husband on the Upper West Side.
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