An Unwelcome Guest

I was lunching at a favorite cheap sushi bar recently, when I noticed a serious-looking woman sitting at the end of the bar with a binder open, jotting notes. She was not eating. The restaurant’s owner sat beside her, looking uncomfortable. A short time later a man with a walrusy mustache and suspenders came in the door, his own shiny clipboard and notepad in hand. “Is there a health inspector here?” he said cheerfully, then noticed his colleague in the corner, waved, and joined her.

Inspectors comparing notes at the sushi bar

If you’re a restaurant owner, there’s nothing cheerful about a visit from the health department. Even if your establishment is spotless, they are the adversary. (I am reminded of the feeling of being a teenager and feeling nervous whenever I saw a policeman, even though I had done nothing wrong.)

In Los Angeles, we have a rating system for cleanliness. The cleanest restaurants get As, which they display proudly in their windows. My sushi bar was defending its A, and everyone looked nervous — even though the restaurant has only been open six months, and is spotless. Sometimes you’ll see a B, though rarely a C, as there is no requirement by law to post your score. I remember once entering a C restaurant with a friend, who was concerned. “A C-rating here is the equivalent of an A in most of the world,” I said. Indeed I have eaten at street stalls in far less regulatory corners of the world that were very clearly an F. But I’ve taken my chances, usually had a great meal and never gotten sick.

The coveted "A"

I’ve only gotten sick once, in fact, from dining in a restaurant. It was before the era of the rating system, I was in my 20s and on my way to Austria chasing an au pair I’d recently met at the beach. I would be gone six weeks, and my gal-pals at work wanted to take me out for a bon-voyage lunch a few days before my departure. They had discovered a favorite Indian buffet they’d been raving about. So lunchtime on a rainy February day, we left work for the restaurant. The owners were friendly, the food good — I made several trips up to the warming trays of curries, stews, rice and flatbreads until we three sat stuffed and sated at our table, sipping tea. It was then that I noticed the man in the raincoat on the sidewalk out front, scribbling in a binder.

He entered the restaurant followed by a woman, also in rain gear, and they immediately got to work. We watched as they went first to the kitchen, waving their arms in an animated fashion, their faces betraying a certain degree of distress. The Indian husband-and-wife owners trailed along behind them, glancing nervously at one another. It was only when the inspectors inserted thermometers into the buffet trays, shook their heads and ordered the food discarded, that we began to worry. The inquisition was still unfolding when we paid our bill and departed the scene.

The next day I arrived at work to discover that one of the friends I’d dined with was out — at home with the “stomach flu,” I was told. The other friend sat at a desk opposite mine, looking somewhat green. It wasn’t yet mid-morning when she stood suddenly and bolted toward the bathroom. I began to wonder if there was a common thread between these two illnesses. It wouldn’t be long before I’d have my answer, as a short time later my own digestive system lurched into revolt and I made a mad dash for the bathroom, where I spent most of the remainder of the day.

Fortunately I was fine by the time I left, and was able to stare down the plumpest bratwurst and largest stein of bier upon arriving in Austria. I suppose the health inspector is a good thing, and stories such as the above would be commonplace were it not for such a system as ours. Still, the former chef in me can’t help but feel a twinge of apprehension when I see that shiny clipboard and those inquisitive eyes…

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10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa Gaskin
    Mar 16, 2012 @ 01:46:30

    Ha…Shi was up at 4.a.m. this morning making close friends with the local household toilet…(closest vicinity to his bedroom)…In-N-Out Burger we suspect…unfortunately one of his favorite haunts. AND, to follow family suit, is gearing up right now for an evening with the YOUNG DUBLINERS at our local concert venue. Bitta the Irish 😉

    Reply

  2. Michelle
    Mar 16, 2012 @ 01:46:56

    The only restaurant I’ve ever gotten sick from (and desperately sick it was) happened to be a baby bistro of a 3-star Michelin Paris chef. I actually don’t blame the chef, whose fancy place my husband made me go to the following night despite my illness because we had a long-held reservation (see what a trooper I am!) or anybody else. I think it was just a bad oyster, which nobody—including inspector bureaucrats—was likely to have found. I’m always happy to see the A-ratings, but I don’t get very worked up when the grades are lower. Too many places at which I’d never eat have superlative health department ratings!

    Reply

    • scolgin
      Mar 16, 2012 @ 01:50:07

      That’s a great counterpoint — all the crappy places with the “A” grades. I say you just gotta go with your gut. WAIT, “go with your gut”… did I just say that!!???

      Reply

  3. Andy
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 00:52:17

    And he’s so darn intelligent that he could practically speak German by the time I arrived in Austria to join him; which was maybe 4 days after he got there. Sadly, the au pair he was chasing was sleeping passionately with someone else even as they invited us to stay at their flat where we were treated to the auditory residuals of their passions. (Why does it sound so RIGHT when you and YOUR lover do it and sound SO gross when it’s others??) Anyway, we had a nice if exhausting trip and the au pair’s lover, Seth Meyer Bruin, has added fodder for our writing ever since.

    Regards, Andy (Sean’s sister)

    Reply

  4. Cookie
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 04:22:26

    The Four Seasons on the Big Island! When I told my doctor, upon our return to California, what had happened he said: “I wouldn’t eat there! We got food poisoning there!” The randomness of that indicates to me they are likely poisoning folks right and left.

    Reply

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