Making Sense of Restaurant Letter Grades

March 7th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

Will you eat at a restaurant that gets less than straight A’s?

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The Responsibility Project

It’s now been 19 months since the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene instituted the practice of doling out letter grades for restaurants in the five boroughs. And though some, like Julie and Julia author Julie Powell, swore not to be put off by C-graded restaurants (Powell recently wrote a piece in The New York Times saying the most authentic food could “emerge only from kitchens not polished to an antiseptic shine”), the reality is that many of the city’s diviest joints are reporting perfectly fine grades.

Powell found that about 72 percent of the city’s restaurants are currently posting “A” grades; of those, more than 60 percent earned the top grade on the first inspection. As Daniel Kass, a deputy health commissioner for environmental health, explained, “Only incredible inattentiveness results in a C grade.”

So how do the grades break down? Andrew Rigie, executive vice president of the New York City chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association, explained to Open Table why the grades might be confusing to some: “What diners need to understand is that there are more than 1,000 points that a restaurant can accrue during an inspection, and it only takes 14 points to get a B and 28 points to get a C. If you use educational scoring here, 28 points is actually more than a 96%, which was an A+ when I went to school.” In reality, he explains, a “C”-graded restaurant isn’t the dangerous grade the public might perceive it to be – if it weren’t safe, the health department would shut it down. 

And for those still wary as to what constitutes an A, B or C, you can also search for a restaurant’s most recent grade, number of violation points and history of inspections on the health inspection website. According to Powell, hits to the site now average around 124,000 per month.
However, an unanticipated downside to the implementation of the grading system is how some resourceful restaurants have managed to eschew letter grades altogether. According to a recent Daily News report, some restaurants that sell a few products to local groceries are now claiming to be a supermarket or a warehouse as a way to be placed under state control. State inspections don’t require publicly displayed grades and are typically conducted only once a year. “That has enabled them to avoid tough city reviews that could lead to a dreaded C grade — even though many operate full-scale restaurants,” The Daily News’ Reuven Bleu writes.
How important is a restaurant’s letter grade to you? Whose responsibility is it to ensure transparency in a restaurant’s cleanliness?