Online listings reveal where the rats are at

by Beacon Staff • February 20, 2008

The City of Boston is offering germaphobes and regular folks alike a tech-savvy way to search a comprehensive directory of restaurant health-inspection records. The Mayor's Food Court can be found by searching the Inspectional Services Department page of the City of Boston Web site, cityofboston.gov.

Searching by name or neighborhood, foodies can get all the dirty details on what specifics landed restaurants a failing grade or a "passed with minor violations" on the city's health-inspection test.

Some consider the site an example of "don't ask, don't tell."

"If I haven't gotten sick there before and it doesn't seem unclean, it's fine," said Dan Weiman, an organization and political communication major. The junior rarely cooks at home and is not concerned with the site's listing. "Even if I read on the site a restaurant I like got minor violations, I would still probably eat there."

That laissez-faire attitude could result in a hospital stay, as 73 percent of all food-borne illness complaints stem from meals eaten out, as compared to only two percent of complaints originating in schools.

At-risk groups, such as pregnant women, small children and people with weakened immune systems, can suffer possibly life-threatening effects if they consume tainted food. Restaurants that don't prioritize food safety can put entire communities at risk for contracting E. coli, salmonella or hepatitis A.

Emerson students routinely dine in facilities they may never suspect are unclean or unsafe. Cold Stone Creamery in City Place failed its Sept. 11, 2007 inspection as a result of a broken walk-in refrigerator and a dead cockroach beneath the cash register. Needless to say, cockroach is not on its way to becoming a mix-in.

As restaurant industry insiders already know, a pricier menu does not always mean a cleaner kitchen. Todd English, a celebrity chef with dozens of restaurants around the globe and a few memorable "Top Chef" appearances, had his Beacon Hill mainstay, Figs, shut down in 2005. Trendy bistro fare beside mouse droppings in the dining room did not endear Todd to the Inspectional Services Department. Sixteen months after the first damning inspection, ISD inspectors found a decomposing mouse in the establishment.

However, Figs is not alone. From Aquitaine to Top of the Hub, many of Boston's high-end restaurants have been cited for mishandling of food items, employees failing to wash hands and vermin infestations. Overall, it is nearly impossible for a running restaurant to avoid incurring at least one health-code violation. Restaurants are often cited for issues like unclean walls in the kitchen or broken locks on walk-in freezers-not the type of things the average restaurant patron sees. A lack of proper food-safety training among restaurant staff is the most common cause of more serious health code violations.

Junior writing, literature and publishing major Caroline Christe has seen the highs and lows of restaurant cleanliness firsthand as a staff member at several upscale eateries in Boston and Philadelphia. Because they care so much about appearance, things like uniformity and cleanliness are very important.

"The management was particularly strict with the kitchen staff with things like wearing chef hats and washing their hands," Christe said. "The waitstaff was told to look presentable on the floor but is not really trained to handle food correctly in the back of the house. Like any business, the restaurants I have worked at tried to save money by cutting back and reusing. Sometimes rolls that are laid out for a table are reused if they are not eaten."

Christe was unfazed by reports of mice infestations.

"Anywhere food is being prepared in Boston or Philadelphia, mice aren't far behind," she said. "In my experience, management can take every precaution, but in the city, they are very difficult to keep out entirely."

The key for Boston diners is to set realistic expectations for restaurants operating in a tough business where speed is a high priority. If a diner sees something or eats something that just doesn't sit well with him, he is encouraged by the ISD to report it by calling the Division of Health Inspections at 617-635-5326, or by calling the Mayor's 24-Hour Help Line, seven days a week at 617 635-4500.