Most U.S. cities have health inspectors check restaurants periodically for sanitation, food safety and other hazards. Some do a better job than others making the results of those inspections public, or understandable. New York continues to lead the way, now with an iPhone app with a direct connection to the latest health inspection report on nearly every restaurant in the city. This is a long way from the 1970s, when New York first required restaurants to make health inspection reports available to customers on request.
Although there are several other apps that aim to do the same thing, I have found that the city’s own app, ABCEats, is reliable and up-to-date. Published by the city’s own technology department, the app enables searches by name, neighborhood or current location.
In a few cases, I have found that the city’s records show a better rating than a restaurant’s owner has posted. More importantly, I can look up whether the “grade pending” sign at a local café means the inspector found relatively unremarkable problems or ones that should give any diner pause before entering. The app was introduced in 2012 as part of Mayor Bloomberg’s NYC Digital initiative.
Using the search by name function, I discovered why health inspectors shut a Mexican restaurant near my home last fall, then reopened. Although the language in the app is deliberately ambiguous in certain places, I interpreted the information displayed as meaning the restaurant owner challenged the inspection and got the violations dismissed. That’s enough information for me to decide not to patronize that restaurant anytime soon. And for those of us who venture into unfamiliar neighborhoods, the app’s search by location function is a nice adjunct to – and a bit more balanced than – Yelp.
As with just about any kind of regulation, many business owners complain that the NYC inspections and the letter grades are unfair. While I am sure the system isn’t perfect, I have seen every kind of restaurant — from mom-and-pop and hole-in-the-wall eateries to the city’s top places — sporting the proud “A” rating.
For me, deal-breakers include violations related to personal hygiene of a restaurant staff, live vermin or rodents, and the rather appalling “interference” with an inspector. Especially since only violations that have a direct impact on food safety count towards the letter grades, avoiding restaurants with lower scores seems prudent. Scanning a few inspection reports for places that earned “C” ratings, typical problems included citations such as food handlers using the toilet and not washing hands before resuming work, cigarette smoking in food preparation areas, cross-contamination between different kinds of foods, and insects, rodents or other unwelcome visitors. (The city has done a good job of explaining the system to restaurant operators. One poster I have seen in many places shows how to avoid common problems, and it has the headline, “Every Restaurant Can Achieve An A.”