Food for Thought

Fans of the great British sitcom Fawlty Towers will recall an episode that featured a dour health inspector who, upon examining the not-quite-spotless kitchen of John Cleese’s hotel, says, “The only gourmets you’ll find here are kamikaze ones.”

Luckily, the same wouldn’t be said of the vast majority of New York’s restaurants. They are subjected to fairly rigorous inspections by the Department of Health, and chefs and owners alike know that they’d better have a clean kitchen. Or else.

The system of inspections, warnings and forced closures seems to work. There have been no reports of mass poisonings or illnesses traceable to the city’s thriving restaurant business.

And yet the city is considering a new inspection regime that would give inspectors the power to issues letter grades to restaurants, and would require restaurants to display these grades prominently.

This is just wrongheaded, a scheme cooked up by some well-meaning but underemployed bureaucrat. City restaurateurs rightly complain that the letter grades will be misunderstood.

After all, the grades would be based not simply on kitchen cleanliness, but an assortment of other small violations, like burned-out light bulbs.

More to the point, however, the city simply hasn’t explained why the old system should be replaced. And let’s not forget that the proposed new system would so empower inspectors that the possibility for corruption on a mass scale can’t be ignored—the example set by our state legislators suggests that only a fool would downplay the potential for corruption in any aspect of civic life.

If there was some evidence that the old system was failing, that restaurateurs were not keeping their kitchens clean, City Hall would be justified in seeking a remedy. But no crisis exists. The system works, and should remain intact.