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Two New Tools Aim to Shed Some Light on Restaurant Inspection Reports

A pair of new searchable databases rank risks and assign grades to Philly restaurants.

With no such grading system in place in Philadelphia, two sources are pulling inspiration from NYC's letter grades for rankings of their own.
With no such grading system in place in Philadelphia, two sources are pulling inspiration from NYC's letter grades for rankings of their own.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

In some places, like New York and Los Angeles, restaurant entrances are emblazoned with eye-catching letter grades that attest to their adherence (or lack thereof) to local Health Department codes. Not so here in Philly: While the results of official restaurant inspections throughout Pennsylvania are available to the public online, the information can be tricky to navigate, and no grading system is in place. (If you have compatibility issues with that previous link, try this one.)

But there are a couple of tools recently launched that aim to make the proceedings more transparent to the average user. In October, a site called Tisk (as in, "tsk tsk," as in "tsk tsk, you naughty restaurant industry professionals have been leaving tasting spoons in the handwashing sink again") launched to assign letter grades to "over 3,000 Philly eateries." And just last week, Philadelphia City Paper [CP] debuted their own searchable database, which gives star ratings to a reported 3,800 restaurants based on the past five years of inspection reports.

In ranking the restaurants, both sites acknowledge that some regulatory issues are more serious than others, and have assigned different weights to various violations. Tisk's website says that they've rated all possible code violations "using a one to five scale ranging from a lack of no smoking signs (1) to visible mouse activity (5)," using the resulting tallies to assign a letter grade of A, B, C, D, or F. (Almost all restaurants received at least passing grades, says the site.) CP asked a number of experts to rank all of the violations on a scale of one to three, gave additional penalties to restaurants that were ordered to close due to violations, and ultimately assigned all of the restaurants a rating from one to four stars.

In other words, applying standardized ratings to complicated records is a subjective process, and a particular restaurant may fare better on one site than the other.

In real terms, here's how the new tools compare to the existing process. If there's a specific establishment you want more info on, you can search for or select a restaurant by name on either site and pull up a rating. But in these cases, you don't always know what you're looking for, so let's assume you want to browse through places near your office to steer clear of any egregious hygiene offenders on your lunch break:

Via the Health Department's search tool, you could search the database by zip code and pull up a paginated list of all inspected businesses in that area (the list for 19107 is 29 pages long). After that, it's up to you to click through to each one and make sense of the lists of violation notes, which can get lengthy. (Even the best restaurants are routinely cited for some violations —  it's more meaningful to consider how serious those violations are and whether a business promptly corrects the problems.)

Here's the entry for Au Bon Pain at Tenth and Locust, as an example. Some citations are straightforward, and it's just up to you how seriously to take each issue. But maybe you're not sure why "common bowl stored in bulk flour" is problematic, or your eyes glaze over skimming through reports that "the quarternary ammonia concentration in the sanitizing solution of the 3-bay warewash sink was 400 ppm."

If you'd like to look up some definitions and details, there's a 149-page PDF for that. Or you can click through again for each full report form, which will either clear some things up or confuse you further. (Another pared-down instructional PDF may help walk you through it.) Even if a restaurant is ordered to shut down as a result of violations, you would never know from these records unless you click through all the way to the right report and read down to the summary at the bottom of the original form. In other words, you'd likely have to know exactly what you were looking for to find it. Here's the end of the one of several inspection reports filed around the temporary shuttering of the Farmers' Cabinet (which later closed permanently for other reasons) back in February:

On Tisk, you can enter a zip code or specific location in the field on the right, and pull up a list of restaurants ordered by proximity to your query. The list prominently displays each restaurant's location, date of last inspection, and Tisk-assigned letter grade. However, you can't reorder a search based on additional criteria — if you want to see who got a D or F, you'll need to page through and look for them

On CP's site, location search works by selecting a neighborhood from a drop-down menu, but the list could use some clean-up to be more intuitive and accurate. For instance, there's a Center City West option as well as a Center City - West option, and while some neighborhoods have their own sections, something like "Rittenhouse Square" falls under that Center City West umbrella. (And some are simply miscategorized — Liberty Bell Diner in the Northeast showed up under Center City - West when we searched.) Still, once you choose a location, all of the results are on one page, making it easy to scroll through and spot the one-star outliers. You can also sort all of the restaurants by grade or point totals, to get a quick look at who occupies the top (and bottom) of the rankings across the city.

If you single out a specific restaurant to look into, the CP database doesn't spit back any details from the inspection report: You just get the star rating, its specific point total according to their weighted calculations, and a date of last inspection. This is a plus if you just want to know what to avoid without reading all the gory details. But if you do want to know the exact reasons for a one-star rating, you'll still have to go through the Health Department to pull up the pertinent reports. (Since Department-ordered closures drive up a restaurant's score, you could infer that the lowest-ranked spots might have suffered that fate.)

Tisk does provide a list of specific violations, but it's limited and made a bit more civilian-friendly than the government-provided reports by dividing the info up into general groups and highlighting those deemed more serious. (I.e., hygiene and pest violations are primary; less-pressing maintenance or signage requirements come later.)

Of course, the point of these tools is to summarize and give an at-a-glance appraisal. If you know exactly what you're looking for or want to read up on the circumstances of a restaurant being shut down, the Health Department's website is still the way to go.

In terms of ease of use, both of these tools are a definite improvement over the status quo. It remains to be seen how in-demand this information is in Philly — and, if the concept does catch on widely, how restaurateurs will react to being graded in this way. In an editor's letter accompanying the CP project, Lillian Swanson notes that their star system "is not meant to be a substitute for government-issued letter grades," but that the paper "would support that effort in the interests of public health."

To be clear, there is currently no such initiative in the works at the government level in Philadelphia. If one is called for in the future, it would likely be met with mixed reactions. It's perhaps not surprising that many restaurant owners take issue at some level with other cities' existing grading systems or their execution, as laid out in this New York-based survey published last year by Serious Eats.

In March of this year, it was reported that Thomas Keller's fine-dining temple Per Se had a pending 'C' grade; upon appeal, many of the citations in that inspection report were dismissed. One point of contention within was that "Potatoes that were in the process of cooking in a pan of canola oil registered between 112 and 118F, which is below the hot food recommended temperature of 140F (as per Pommes Rissolee, a classic French technique used for generations in kitchens around the world)."

There's definitely reason for concern that, if ever officially implemented, the grades be as fair and accurate as possible: In one survey regarding the posted letter grades, 88 percent of New Yorkers polled said they "consider the grades in their dining decisions." The same study that includes that survey finding also notes that "many key violations were less prevalent at 18 months than in the year prior to grading" — in other words, having their grades broadcast on their front doors did have the effect of raising NYC restaurants' compliance.

For their part, CP pulled 20 popular restaurants from their database to give readers their first taste of the new system. While most of the big names fared well — Barbuzzo, several Vetri-owned restaurants, Buddakan, Morimoto, and Amada are among the three- and four-star entries — some results may surprise. Lacroix, for one, gets two stars via the paper's method.