Knowing Your ABC’s of New York City’s Restaurants

nyc restaurant health score

If you’ve dined in New York City, you’ve surely noticed the large letter signs posted by the Department of Health displayed in restaurant windows. And you’ve probably wondered about what each letter truly represents. Since we all relate an A to being good, a B to OK and a C to something you don’t want to take home to your parents, you’d most likely be comfortable grabbing a bite to eat at an A-rated place. But what if it’s a B or a C rating and you really want to eat there? What does a letter farther down the alphabet chain mean? In fact, what does an A really mean?

According to, the Department of Health performs unannounced reviews of each of New York City’s 24,000 restaurants at least once a year. A review of its ‘How We Grade Guide’ shows that scores range from A to C — C being the worst and A the best.

Since July 2010, the Health Department has required restaurants to post letter grades that clearly demonstrate recent sanitary inspection results. Restaurants with a score between zero and 13 points are granted an A, those with 14 to 27 points receive a B and those with 28 or more, a C.

In order to answer our earlier questions, lets explore what these points really mean:

A restaurant’s final grade/score depends on how well it follows the city’s food safety requirements. Inspectors check for food handling, food temperature, personal hygiene, facility and equipment maintenance and vermin control. If a violation occurs, a certain number of points are added to the restaurant’s score. The points are totaled and the letter grade is assigned. The lower the score, the better the letter grade.

So, where do these numbers come from?

The points associated with a violation depend on the health risks posed to restauranteurs. Violations fall into three categories:

  • A public health hazard (ex.failing to keep food at the right temperature) automatically gets a minimum of seven points. If the violation isn’t in compliance by the end of the inspection, the Health Department may close the restaurant until the issue is resolved.
  • A critical violation is a failure to properly wash raw food, (ex. lettuce/tomato), resulting in a minimum fine of five points.
  • A general violation, which would consist of not properly sanitizing cooking utensils, receives at least two points.

The following is an example taken from the Health Department guide which illustrates how even when additional points are added for violations, a restaurant can still retain a high rating.

“…the presence of one contaminated food item is a condition level 1 violation, generating 7 points. Four or more
contaminated food items is a condition level 4 violation, resulting in 10 points.”

Reading the document on the health department’s website left me a bit more concerned. After analyzing the above statement along with the violation categories, I realized that a restaurant with an A grade could have four or more contaminated food items (10 points) in addition to unsanitary cooking utensils (general violation, 2 points) for a total of 12 points — certainly not an A in my  book of sanitary practices.

What’s worse, is that many restaurants with numerous infractions refute the points in court and successfully get their grades adjusted without the requirement of a proper re-inspection. The chart below is an evaluation of all New York City restaurants, which shows scores at time of inspection juxtaposed with final grade distribution (via amNewYork):

The breakdown of grades earned at the time of inspection:

A – 60% (14,611)

B – 28% (6,704)

C – 12% (2,953)

The distribution of final grades:

A – 76% (17,653)

B – 18% (4,120)

C – 6% (1,411)

The moral of the story is relatively simple folks: if you are moseying over to a restaurant and see a B or C, it may be time to reevaluate how badly you want that grilled cheese sandwich . Maybe an “A” doesn’t even work for you. For me, I may just leave my ABC’s at home and close my eyes when going out for a meal.

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