When I got to visit my brother-in-law in Los Angeles, he has a simple rule for picking a restaurant for dinner.
"Nothing below a B," he says.
A "B" is the letter grade that a restaurant has received from the city's health department based on the number or lack of health code violations. And now when I go to visit my brother in New York City, I wonder if we're going to have the same rules. New York just adopted the letter grade system, rolling out grades for 24,000 restaurants.
New York City's decision is important because it seems likely to have a ripple effect on other cities and towns, as well as the choices of chain restaurants. The city's move to ban trans fats, require calories to be posted on menus, and look at both salt and sugar content have turned those issues into national debates.
Critics of letter grades would suggest that it unfairly penalizes restaurants by not telling the whole story. And that diners like my brother-in-law will just look at the letter grade posted in the window and not dig any further to find out what exactly why the restaurant was cited.
Kansas City has taken a more friendly approach to date. Instead of posting grades, the health department gives out annual awards for restaurants and locations that haven't had any critical violations throughout the year. While it's good to recognize excellence, a full year passes between these awards.
The city's health department can take it further. I approve of any system that gives more information on food safety to customers. A restaurant needs to be clean and if it takes a bad report card to shame them into proper action, so be it. I'll be the first to reward a new restaurant that gets a good report card by taking myself out to dinner...at their place.
[Image via Flickr: toofarnorth]