Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Who Knows Their ABC's? L.A.'s Letter-Rating System Discussed

Well, it started out with the paragraph below.

"In pursuit of this post, I am soliciting from you, readers, any verifiable sighting of a 'D' or an 'F.' I do not believe these to exist, but will pay handsomely if you show me otherwise. And the cabinet in the cops' lounge on 'The Shield' absolutely does not count."

Then, came this:

"[UPDATE] Oh, man. The comments on this intro are better by far than whatever i was going to write on this topic. Go to the comments and read the exchange between 'c' and 'anonymous' (If they're ever going to succeed in the world of wrestling, they'll both need better stage-names). Others should feel free to write in, too, although i can't guarantee your safety.

And here's the angle I was going to work, if people need more prodding to write in: how much does a letter grade affect where you eat? Does the same letter mean something different if you see it at Oki Dog than it does festooning the front door of Dolce, especially if it's a low grade? Do you really feel like the letters accurately represent your risk of food-borne illness (bear in mind that, at one point, All-American Burger on Sunset had an 'A' while Luna Park sported a bright-red 'C,' which, if the system is to be believed, would mean that you run a greater risk of being felled by a grilled artichoke at LP than a teriyaki 'steak' burrito at AAB)? "

I'm not sure if I got lazy or if I realized this would be more interesting as a straight discussion than as another collection of my own snarky comments. Whichever, even in a short time I've gotten to where it was I wanted to go in the first place, and 90% through a few readers' comments. My points, basically, were going to be: (1) Very few people know how the grading system works, which is odd for a measure that's supposed to protect the public's health through instantly recognizable signage. On the other hand, ER visits for food-borne illness have declined by something like 13% since the advent of this system, so there may very well be something to it (I've also seen data correlating stork population with birth rate, though, so I'm a skeptic). (2) Whether or not anyone knows what the letters mean, many will weigh the grades differently, depending on the restaurant sporting them. For example, on reader wrote in and told me he specifically chose a Palmdale Salvadoran joint based solely on its "D" rating (others have written in debating whether such a grade can exist, or if anywhere that scores below a "C" has to exhibit its admittedly-a-bit-frightening numerical score). Would that anonymous commentator have made the same choice had he driven past Bastide and seen the same letter (all prices being equal)? "Honey, let's check out this $200-a-head-before-drinks cutting-edge French place: it's FILTHY!" Yeah, it doesn't sounds likely to me, either. On the other hand, I'm betting if you had a res at Bastide and when you showed up you saw a low grade, you might not turn away because of it. It's a tough table to get, and the scarlet letter would be explained away if you asked (surly inspector, nonsense infractions, here's some free aperitifs while you decide if you want to stay). Would you really vote down what you'd been led to believe was one of the best high-end meals in town based on a paper sign with a block letter on it?

So in the end, do the letters tell us anything useful? Do we ignore them at our peril? The same folks who pop into the run-down greasy-spoon on the highway (me, for one--and my favorite is still the Liberty Diner which was on my drive from Upstate to Manhattan) because it very often has the best food will most likely use the letters in reverse, at least in certain cases--I wonder if food poisoning is up among that group, since they have easier access to something they used to have to rely on instinct for.

Frankly, the letters are ridiculous. In New York, places with too many violations get a warning and then get shut down until they clean up. It's nice and binary there. Here, you're made to think you're in possession of better intelligence, but really you're just being given a measurement of how fast the staff can run to throw away the tuna that's next to the space heater, or of the inspector's mood. Or maybe of the overall cleanliness and healthiness of the prepping-and-serving environment, but no one know what infractions are embedded in, say, a "B" that lasts a single week. A rat? Peanuts in a bowl on the bar (Luna Park claimed this was the source of their "C")? Anthrax spores that turned out to be $200-an-ounce salt distilled from the armpits of a Moroccan 12-year-old? I mean, it's impossible to know.

But they obviously make people feel safer, and isn't that really the point? Authentic Cafe--the place that many consider to be the epicenter of the whole thing (a prep cook there was secretly filmed while tossing a salad and licking his fingers and the film was played on the local news) is open for business and has even opened a lounge next to their dining room. Briefly avoided, Authentic is now thriving again. Now that people can walk up to the door and inspect the comforting-blue "A" posted front and center, telling everyone it's okay, the seared tuna salad has not been licked by anyone until it's served to your table. Just watch your finger-licking friends. Hey--maybe that's what we need: letter grades we all carry around that tell everyone what kind of eaters we are. Now that's a system I could get behind.

Ok, now read the comments, and add yours.


Anonymous c said...

... a D or an F? yes!

you see them a lot with the chinese restaurants in the s.g.v.

only the signs are different.

a D has a sign that says: "Closed For Remodeling"

an F, "Under New Management".

Less seriously, the law stipulates only A, B, and Cs can operate.

9:38 AM  
Blogger dwg said...

people, THAT is what i'm talking about: results. the pseudonymous mr. c has won himself the "prize" of a meal with dwg by conclusively DISproving the existence of D's or F's in nature.

i will, of course, still accept anyone's contention that such a restaurant is still operating.

10:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"c" is talking through his hat. Plenty of restaurants are operating with scores lower than "c"; they have to post their numeric score instead. (A=90-100, B=80-89, C=70-79.) Closure is not directly related to score, and you can find lots of sub-C grade restaurants are still operating by going to the link below and clicking on the "69 and below" button. There are currently 24 "sub-C" restaurants that are operating, the lowest-rated being "Alina's Place" with a score of 56.

Grading explained:

12:27 PM  
Blogger dwg said...

controversy. excellent. hey, if you want to make an additional contribution, have lunch at at alina's place for me and let me know how it is.

1:16 PM  
Anonymous c said...

thanks anonymous for substantiating the points made in my original post:

… a D or an F? yes!

per the said "alina's place", they do indeed exist.

… the law stipulates only A, B, and Cs can operate.

here is the law, lifted from the Retail Food Inspection Guide (Los Angeles County H-3046):

"Suspension of a Public Health Permit" is also known as a food facility closure and may occur without prior notification. A permit may be suspended for repeated violations, noncompliance, inspection scores below 70 points, or when there is an immediate danger to the public's health and safety …
All food establishments that score below seventy percent (70%) twice within a twelve-month period are subject to closure and the filing of a court case.
… (Page 56)

about the hat, i forget which one i wore, but i promise to work on my humor in any event.

perhaps alina is wondering why the surge in business all of the sudden. how bout a challenge, dwg? your steel palate versus my iron stomach.

9:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why even bother replying when your "evidence" doesn't prove your point? First, there are no D or F grades, just number scores. Second, as I posted, 24 places with sub-70 scores are operating, and you neglected to bold the relevant word in your quoted "proof" which of course is the word may. NONE of those 24 sub-C restaurants are closed, most notably Tung Lai Shun, operating with a 62 score (not a "D") since December.

And later you do bold the word "ALL", though it's irrelevant since it only applies to places that score under 70 twice.

9:38 AM  
Blogger dwg said...

My "steel palate?" That doesn't seem like a compliment, although it would be a wicked shaolin fighting style. "My steel-palate style will defeat your drunken-father style!" Fight!

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've eaten at one and lived to tell. This was back in '02, and it's not on the current list, but there was a family run storefront that served El Salvadoran fare in East Palmdale. I drove by and saw the "D" and thought I would live dangerously. It wasn't bad for a quick bite and there were no "ramifications"

2:37 PM  
Blogger dwg said...

hmmm....this latest anon says he "saw the 'D'." but according to the first anon (i'm assuming the comments come from different anons--correct me if that's wrong), letters aren't used below 'C,' and restaurants falling below that "have to post their numeric score instead." in other words, he asserts, "there are no D or F grades." someone is clearly wrong. who is it?

or is palmdale like long beach, pasadena and vernon, in that they conduct their own inspections and so don't use the same exact system as l.a. proper? maybe other systems include letter grades below "C?"

5:47 PM  
Anonymous c said...

dwg, the fight is on!

the first that gags over alina's meatloaf loses.

or should we make it best out of three?

choose your fork!

1:19 AM  
Blogger dwg said...

oh, hell no it isn't on. i got laid low by some bad duck just a couple of weeks ago (at an "A," natch). dubious meatloaf? uh-uh.

12:01 PM  
Anonymous c said...

oh no! felled by a duck? that must have been fowl.

i'm sure many of us who's been in a restaurant kitchen can testify that what gets posted on the outside sometimes don't jive with what goes on in the inside.

6:17 PM  

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