You check out Yelp to get a sense for a restaurant's price range and vibe, but there's something else you might be able to learn from the site soon: Health scores for restaurants are appearing on Yelp pages in certain cities.
San Francisco was the first city to add restaurant sanitation grades, and most recently, Louisville, Kentucky, also joined the movement. Now, thanks to the new feature, Yelp users can go online and see when any restaurant in these participating cities was last inspected and what kinds of violations they were guilty of.
Since there's no national grading system for restaurants, a city's individual health department creates its own criteria to determine restaurants' health scores: San Francisco and Louisville, for example, give restaurants a numerical score out of 100, while New York City uses letter grades. Generally, health inspectors look for things consumers can't see—such as refrigerator temperatures, employee sanitation practices, and potential cross-contamination of food.
Health scores are available to the public, but usually through a government database—which can be difficult to find and complicated to sift through. What's more, restaurants aren't always required to display their final health score out in the open for people to see—the score might be kept out-of-sight in the kitchen, for example.
"Unless a restaurant fails and shuts down, the public may never know just how close it may have come to closing," says Sarah Klein, senior staff attorney of the Food Safety Program for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
In other words, just because a restaurant has been inspected by the health department and is still open doesn't mean they're totally up to par on their sanitary practices—or that they can't make you sick. The good news?
There are things you can keep an eye out for to get a rough idea of how clean a restaurant is. Just use these tips the next time you're dining out.
|Check Out the Bathroom|
Employees almost always use the same restrooms as customers, so make sure a restaurant has the basic hand-washing necessities: soap, paper towels or a hand air dryer, and hot water.
"A restaurant's pretty incompetent if it can't keep the basic sanitary requirements for personal hygiene in the public restroom," says Roy Costa, a registered sanitarian and founder of Environ Health Associates, Inc.
|Size Up Your Server|
Waiters and food runners are responsible for delivering your food, which means their hygiene must be spotless at all times. Look to see if your server has dirt under his or her fingernails, has loose strands of hair, or is visibly sick (aka, coughing or sneezing), says Klein. If the in-plain-sight staff isn't practicing good hygiene, there's a good chance that the employees in the back aren't, either.
|Feel Out Your Food|
Unless the menu specifically indicates that a meal is meant to be served at room temperature, it's a major red flag, says Costa. It's a sign that a plate was left out too long between when it was made and when it was served. Of course, there are exceptions—like if you ordered a medium-rare steak—but it doesn't hurt to give your food a quick temp check before you dig in.