Restaurant ratings on the back burner

In 2005, San Francisco health officials launched a new program to dole out health and safety scores to The City’s restaurants. Three years later, the program offers diners little more than vague insight into the potential health risks they face when going out to eat.

City inspectors randomly visit each of San Francisco’s 6,700 eateries — from food carts to sit-down restaurants — at least twice a year to inspect safety conditions, said Richard Lee of the Department of Public Health. They start with 100 points and lose 12 points for major infractions such as improper food storage, four points for moderate infractions such as reusing bread and two points for minor infractions such as a worker with dirty fingernails.

San Francisco legislators originally sought to have a letter grade emblazoned on storefronts — a practice currently employed in Los Angeles — but the numerical ranking was reached as a compromise in 2005 after strong backlash from the restaurant community.

Nearly 70 San Francisco restaurants bear failing marks from city inspectors, but many of their customers might not know it. Restaurants are not required to post their numerical ranking in their establishment, only the inspection report — in a place that’s “clearly visible.”

Six of The City’s 10 lowest-scoring restaurants were located in the Sunset — including three on Noriega Street. A spot check in that district found only one — Loi’s Vietnamese Restaurant on Irving Street — that opted to put its numerical rank on public display. The scorecard hung on the wall next to its inspection assessment.

Loi’s lost points for having employees without clean hands and for storing food at incorrect temperatures, according to health department data.

Mai Takei was eating at Loi’s when she happened to notice the dark green card above her head bearing the inspection score.

“It is not something I look for usually, but once you see the score, it definitely has an effect,” Takei said. “If I saw a card with a low score in a restaurant’s window, I probably wouldn’t go in.”

A walk into several restaurants on Mission Street offered different interpretations of “clearly visible.” King’s Bakery and Cafe had the inspection letter taped to a switchboard box behind its front-door entrance. Chava’s Restaurant had a letter displayed on its front window — but without any notes written on it. And La Taqueria had its letter posted 10 feet up its wall, making it difficult to read for anyone without a telescope.

The restaurant receiving the lowest ranking — S & T Hong Kong Seafood, located on Noriega Avenue — did not have its score posted. The restaurant lost points because inspectors found evidence of rodent and insect infestation and its food was in “improper condition,” according to the health department report.

Lee said that most businesses with low scores were unlikely to post that information to the public, but it is available on The City’s Web site.

Industry critical of inspection practices

Three years after The City began compiling restaurant-inspection rankings, industry officials say they are baffled by a scoring practice that can vary with each inspection.

Of The City’s 10 lowest-ranking restaurants, six had a score in the 90s as recently as 2007, according to Clean Scores, an independent Web site that logs the Department of Public Health’s inspection rankings.

“A lot of things can happen to explain a big drop-off,” said Richard Lee, who oversees the inspection process for the Department of Public Health. “There could be a new management team, new employees or a new inspector.”

One manager, whose restaurant’s ranking dipped into the 40s after four consecutive scores in the 90s, said a new health inspector came in with a completely new set of guidelines.

“It really makes you wonder what they were looking at the five years previous,” said the manager, who asked to remain anonymous.

Kevin Westlye, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, said the ranking system should be revised so owners can petition for a quick re-inspection if their restaurant earns a low safety score.

“Having a low score posted online for three to four months is a pretty steep price,” Westlye said. “You could be talking about potentially losing dozens of customers a day.” — Will Reisman

In the public’s eye

After each inspection, a restaurant is given two documents.

» One is a green placard with a numerical score in bold letters, but restaurants are not required to display that figure.

» The other document is the inspector's checklist — a pale yellow piece of paper scrawled with handwritten notes detailing each infraction. Every restaurant is required to hang the inspection letter, but the only guideline is that it’s “clearly visible to the patrons of the establishment,” according to The City ordinance.

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