- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 25, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - In the six months since New York City started giving letter grades to restaurants, a higher-than-expected 57 percent of restaurants have received an A.

The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says the system has achieved its intended effect of spurring restaurants to improve their cleanliness and food safety.

But many in the restaurant industry _ including owners of “A” restaurants _ still believe the system is subjective and unfair.

“I’m not sure it was needed, the format,” said Lorenzo Ansuini, who owns Mezzogiorno in the Soho neighborhood with his father and brother.

Ansuini’s restaurant sports an A in the window, but he said he’s heard of restaurants losing business after receiving a bad grade. “I wonder if it does more damage than it’s intended to do,” he said Tuesday.

City health inspectors visit restaurants and take points off for a range of infractions including vermin, uncovered garbage cans and food left out of the refrigerator too long.

Under the system implemented in July 2010, restaurants with fewer than 14 violation points earn an A. Those with 14 to 27 points get a B, and 28 or more means a C.

Restaurants that don’t ace their first inspection get a second chance. A restaurant that gets more than 13 violation points is reinspected within a month. If it still doesn’t qualify for an A, it must either post its B or C grade or display a placard that says “Grade Pending” while it appeals the bad grade at an administrative tribunal.

Tom’s Restaurant in upper Manhattan, famous as the hangout on “Seinfeld” and from Suzanne Vega’s song “Tom’s Diner,” has a “Grade Pending” sign.

According to the Health Department website, Tom’s earned a B for violations including the presence of flies and “food contact surface not properly maintained.”

“Sometimes when they want to write you up, they write you up,” manager Mike Zoulis said. “Nobody’s perfect.”

The Health Department has inspected 10,000 restaurants since July and hopes to get to all the city’s 24,000 eateries by the end of the year.

According to a report posted on the Health Department’s website Monday, the proportion of A restaurants has exceeded the department’s expectation that about one-third of restaurants would earn an A in the first year.

Just 27 percent of the restaurants inspected so far got an A on their first try, but many B and C restaurants improved enough to get an A the second time an inspector visited.

The department said that shows that the system “is motivating restaurants to improve their food safety practices.”

But restaurateurs say the system is not objective and that one inspector may take points off for something another inspector would let slide.

“You have a very wide range of variance between different inspectors,” Ansuini said.

The New York State Restaurant Association, a trade group that opposed the letter-grade system before it went into effect, still does not like it.

Andrew Rigie, the association’s director of operations, said in an e-mail: “The fact that there is still so much confusion and controversy surrounding the letter grade system six months into its implementation is a strong symbol that hard working business people are not crying wolf but seek a more fair and equitable inspection system.”

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