To those (like myself) who spend the better part of their online time surfing the internet to find meaningless sources of entertainment, I recommend the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene website, a virtual cornucopia of the bizarre that may interest New Yorkers. It includes "Death Certificates," "Dog License Information, "Quit Smoking," "NYC Condom," "West Nile Virus Spraying," and my favorite, "Restaurant Inspections." (And no, none of these has anything to do with "mental hygiene," whatever that may be. Didn't they mean "mental health"? "Mental hygiene"... brain-flossing?)
Under the Restaurant Inspections tab, you can type in the name of any restaurant in the city and pull up all of its health inspections, including the scores the restaurant received and the reasons behind the scores. Here's how these inspections are conducted and scored:
• They are unannounced and conducted by health professionals;
• They evaluate everything from the food temperature to workers' practices to the presence of vermin and garbage to the proper display of the "Choking first aid" sign;
• At the start of the visit, the establishment has zero points, and accumulates points for each
violation. 27 points or below is good. 28 points or more and the establishment either is shut down on the spot or is given a few days to revamp their policies, then re-inspected.
That the organization refers to itself as the "Department of Health and Mental Hygiene" should have warned me that their documents would contain off-the-mark syntax; viz, their Food Service Establishment Inspection Score Worksheet listed one particularly perplexing violation under "Facility Design": "Nuisance created or allowed to exist. Facility not free from unsafe, hazardous, offensive or annoying condition." Meaning... what? I can understand if the facility were designed in a way that was hazardous to the health of the workers. But what if the facility has a "slightly annoying" design? Could an inspector slap on ten points if she didn't like the fact that she had to walk what she deemed to be an extra couple feet to reach the milk? Or objected to the color scheme? Or the use of wicker where wrought iron would have been so much more... texturally coherent?
How about "Evidence of flying insects present in facility's food and/or non-food areas." Now, I understand the previous entry, "Evidence of rats or live rats present in facility's food and/or non-food areas." Rat poop. Chewed up cartons. Rat-evidence. But evidence of a flying insect? If a fruit fly was there, but is no longer there, how would you know? "I felt a very very slight, almost imperceptible breeze brush by my ear. But I couldn't see anything. Must be a fruit fly."
Ok so let's get to Mr. Anthony Bourdain, star chef of Les Halles. On April 4, 2007, he racked up an astonishing 80 points. Not only was his cold food held above 41 degrees and his hot food held below 140 (prime bacteria breeding ground on both counts), but his facility wasn't vermin-proof and there was evidence of flying insects. (A weenie whoooosh? Tiny, sarcastic notes left under the refrigerator? Soft giggling from the fruit basket?) Two days later, at another inspection, not only did the facility remain open to vermin, there was still evidence of flying insects, and the additional presence of... mice! So the mice had come out to play. Three days after that, Tony got his act together and received a lovely 8 points.
Don't want to eat an establishment where mice and rats rule the kitchen, a la Ratatouille? Go browse those establishments that have received Golden Apple Excellence in Food Safety Awards. Per Se is impeccable (zero points), and close behind, with only five points, is the Blimpie at 85 East Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. (I am not making this up.)
Despite Bourdain's glitch, most NYC high-end restaurants do just fine on these inspections. Zagat's 2008 top-rated restaurants were all impeccable (Daniel, Sushi Yasuda, Le Bernardin, Per Se, Jean Georges) except for Peter Luger (vermin, flying insects, live mice, oh my!) and Bouley (a humiliating 57 points in September, 2007).
Depending on how much time you want to fritter away, you could help me find the restaurant that received the worst overall score in city history. After a few hours of concentrated web surfing, I found that Shake Shack got a 109 in July of 2006. If you can beat that, burger's on me.