This Restaurant Critic Is Giving Public Health Policy a Bad Review

The 'Orange County Register' critic wants local dining establishments to display health inspection grades.

A Manhattan restaurant rated with a Health Department A grade is seen in NYC. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Jan 10, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

For diners who will spend any number of hours on Southern California freeways to eat the weird and wonderful foods of L.A.’s varied diaspora communities, the health inspection grades prominently displayed in restaurant windows are of little concern. Rather than a B or C grade being a deterrent, if, say, fermented Thai sausage or real-deal Peking duck is in the offing, the low grade is seen as a sign of good things to come, a badge of honor that signals foods made in traditional ways that stodgy public health officials just can’t appreciate.

“There tended to be a cultural bias, which is why I was against the letter code in the beginning,” Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold said to the Wall Street Journal about L.A.’s health letter grades just before New York City debuted its own similar system in 2010. Indeed, when a bakery I live near received a B for not having a ventilation hood over a one-burner stove rarely used in the oven-centric kitchen, the owners told me they were terrified their largely white middle-class hipster-y customers would balk and buy their coffee and croissants elsewhere. Similar to the prejudice against “ethnic” restaurants charging higher prices for foods diners are accustomed to eating on the cheap, restaurant goers tend to only be OK with a certain kind of dining establishment bearing anything less than an A grade.

In Orange County too there are plenty of international dining experiences to seek out, from Vietnamese food in Little Saigon to the myriad kebab houses and Arab markets scattered around the southern end of the O.C. sprawl. In upscale Newport Beach, however, you’re more likely to find higher-end restaurants, the kinds of places with tasting menus and wine pairings, restaurants where, were it Orange County law to display health letter grades, anything below an A would be unacceptable to diners and, thereby, for the businesses as well.

That’s just the town where Brad A. Johnson, the Orange County Register’s restaurant critic, along with the rest of his dinner party, recently got horrendously sick after eating at an unnamed establishment. Although grades aren’t displayed in Orange County, health inspector reports are in the public record, so Johnson went searching and found “this place has received a serious violation on every one of its inspections since opening two years ago. Coincidence?”

Formerly the critic for Angeleno Magazine, Johnson is new to the Orange County beat but says that he’s already “been poisoned” on four occasions. He writes that during his decade of covering Los Angeles restaurants, he never reviewed establishments with anything lower than an A grade and was only sickened twice.

The impact that dining out professionally on either side of the county line had on his health led Johnson to call for a renewed debate about health inspection grades, which have been killed by restaurant-lobby dollars in the past, leaving the county with a watered-down system.

The placards currently displayed in restaurant windows in Orange County are useless. A restaurant might pass inspection by the skin of its teeth, with serious repeat violations, yet it gets the exact same placard as a restaurant that receives a near-perfect score. That's messed up. That's why I got sick.

In the two years I wrote about L.A. restaurants I never got food poisoning and exercised a near complete disregard for what I ordered and where I ordered it from, health-grade-wise. However, before the grades debuted in Los Angeles, in 1998, the Times’ Gold joked to the Journal that “being somebody who ate a certain end of the food chain a lot,” he was subject to a good six years of “low-level food poisoning.”

When New York started posting letter grades in 2010, many high-end establishments initially received low letter grades, which, while shocking to some diners, was the result more of adjusting to a new system than of gross health violations. Similarly, only 63 percent of L.A. restaurants received an A in the first six months, and that number is now above 80 percent. In 2003, a peer-reviewed study showed a 20 percent drop in hospitalizations related to food-borne illness after the grading system was implemented.

An editor’s note accompanying Johnson’s blog post on the Register website explains why the offending restaurant isn’t named: “Because nearly half of Orange County restaurants would not receive an A under the letter-grade system, the problem addressed here is widespread.” Which in itself is a pretty good argument for making Orange County go the way of L.A.