New York restaurants cleaner than ever

The number of restaurant-related gripes filed with the New York City Health Department jumped 18 percent — from 7,312 to 8,653 — between the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years. both years, the top complaint was rodents, insects or garbage overflowing or on the floor.

Other common grievances were about spoiled food (766), bare hands in contact with food (562) and broken toilet or lack of toilet paper (233). A half-dozen picky customers even complained about inadequate lighting.

Then there was the stomach-turning offense of a “foreign object” found in a food serving, which led 569 disgusted patrons to ask for inspectors to intervene.

In most cases, the “foreign object” was hair or a small piece of plastic.

Despite the higher volume of complaints, officials insisted restaurants are cleaner than ever as the city’s letter-grading system enters its sixth year.

On their initial inspection, 58 percent of restaurants earned an A in the most recent fiscal year — up from 37 percent in the first year of the grading system. Violations issued to restaurants also dropped — from nearly 213,000 in fiscal 2013 to a tick more than 196,000 in fiscal 2015.

A less punitive system ushered through by the City Council last year decreased fines by 18 percent — to $26.8 million — among the city’s more than 24,000 eateries.

“Over the last five years, restaurant letter grading has successfully motivated restaurants to practice better food safety. Restaurants are performing better on inspection and are cleaner than they have ever been,” said Health Department spokesman Levi Fishman.

NY restaurants argue their grade at Night Court

The health department tribunal is, according to the New York Times, a little-publicized court system that metes out penalties for violations of the city sanitary code.

It has been there for years, in a nondescript government office in Lower Manhattan where more than a dozen administrative law judges escort their charges into cramped rooms and hear them wrangle over infractions, in a ritual reminiscent of visiting the principal’s office.

But in the weeks since the city adopted a new system requiring restaurants to post large, brightly colored letter grades rating their cleanliness and safety, the tribunal has become a high-stakes food court of last resort where hundreds of restaurant owners and their representatives trudge each day to defend what they say are their very livelihoods.

Whether from Dunkin’ Donuts or Le Bernardin, whose case was called last week, they stand in line behind two strips of grimy gray tape on the floor to check in at a reception desk. Then they wait, sometimes all day, to defend their kitchens, many in hopes of nudging a humiliating C up to a bearable B, or turning that middle-of-the-class B into a gold-star A.

At one recent hearing, the judge asked Jay Gavrilov, director of dining services at a residence for the elderly in Battery Park City, if he had anything to say. He responded with an impassioned speech: he was not seeking to reduce his fines or dismiss the violations that had earned him a B.

“My purpose here is to try to get an A to put up,” he said plaintively, “for the well-being and mental well-being of my 80-to-105-year-old residents.”