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Milk Bar Gets a 'C,' James an 'A': Restaurant Owners React to Letter Grades

Six months into the Department of Health’s letter grading system, restaurant owners and customers react to what some call the "scarlet letter."

Beginning in July of last year, the New York City Department of Health began mandating that restaurants display a letter grade showing their health inspection scores.

The grades, A through C, were part of a new plan to inform patrons of the safe food practices (or not) of their favorite eateries. 

Milk Bar on Vanderbilt Avenue and El Gran Castillo de Jagua, on Flatbush Avenue, both shocked loyal customers by receiving C grades. Others, such as  and , both got A's. 

The A grades are of course displayed in windows as proudly as a Zagat rating, but for some restaurateurs, a C grade is akin to a scarlet letter.

“Letter grading enables diners to make more informed choices about where to eat,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, New York City Health Commissioner, in a statement last year. “And by making the inspection system more transparent, it gives restaurant operators an added incentive to meet the highest standards in food safety.” 

Unsurprisingly, the New York State Restaurant Association, has been  a vocal opponent of the system, calling the grades "subjective."

Under the grading plan, restaurants are inspected without advance notice. If they earn less than 14 violation points, they receive an A. Restaurants with between 14 and 27 points are given a B grade, while restaurants with over 28 points receive a C.  

According to the DOH, six months into the new system, 57 percent of restaurants have received an A grade, while 43 percent have been ranked B or C.

Milk Bar, received its C because of 40 points worth of violations found during an inspection in October.

“We had a fruit fly problem, which is an automatic 28 points, because of a box of tomatoes that arrived,” said owner Alexander Hall.

He called an exterminator right away, but it was too late.

“It was a $2,000 fine, and the most farcical thing I’ve ever heard. The fruit flies came in on a product that I have no control over,” he said.

Hall called the C grade the “nail in the coffin,” and plans to sell Milk Bar. The grade, he said, is "not helping” sales.

El Gran Castillo de Jagua, on Flatbush Avenue, received a C grade in September, after inspectors tallied 42 violation points, mostly for food temperature issues and vermin. After a mandated follow-up inspection the next month, the restaurant had 16 violation points, a high B grade, said manager Pedro Dejada.

“We are getting it fixed, it will change,” he said. The Department of Health website confirms the grade, but apparently Dejada hasn't received the new certificate yet, and the C remains in the window.

Asked if business has slowed down, Dejada said yes, but was quick to blame the economy and weather, not the grade.  

Restaurants owners that received an A grade said, of course, that the system was fair and helpful to consumers.

“It was a normal inspection, no problems. They checked everything,” said Sal Cataldo, owner of on Vanderbilt Avenue. “People that don’t like (the inspection) want to see something wrong with it.”

Customers had mixed reactions to the grades. Some said they would keep frequenting their favorite establishments, whatever the grade in the window. Some felt a C was a clear warning sign.

“I don’t pay attention to the grades,” said Celeste Mendez, a Prospect Heights resident, who was returning from lunch at (which received zero violations and an A score).

“It depends if it were a place that I frequently went to," said Amy Gordon, also a Prospect Heights resident, on whether or not a low grade would change her mind about eating at a certain place.

Mara Mills, out with her husband and baby, said she reluctantly paid attention to the grades.

“I do, but I shouldn’t, because you know they could find some minute thing,” she said. “But then again, I work in the South Bronx, and you’d be surprised what gets an A – the Chinese restaurant with bulletproof glass, for instance.”

“If I’m going to a place that has a C and next door there’s an A, I already know where I’m going,” added Ethan Mills.

At the Parkside Diner on Flatbush, employee Madonna Marit said their B grade was “not fair,” and that “business has been really slow.”

Jose, another employee at the Parkside Diner, who declined to give his last name, just shrugged when asked if he thought the grade was hurting business.

“It’s a question for the customers, whether or not they care what’s in the window,” he said.

How did other area restaurants do? Here's a sampling (listed best score to worst):

, , Bombay Masala, James, , Weather Up, , Nick's, The Usual, and  all got A's.

, Parkside Restaurant, , , Plan B, , , Sushi Tatsu and  all got B's.

Franklin Park, Christie's Jamaican Patties and  all got C's.

Want to look up your favorite restaurant? Visit the Department of Health's searchable database of restaurant grades.

Melissa Thornton April 26, 2011 at 08:22 PM
I pay attention to the grades. A C? Oof, that freaks me out.

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