Big Apple restaurants are really "cleaning" up. About 85% of the 23,975 restaurants inspected by the health department received A grades as of Nov. 2, a 20% increase in perfect scores from the months after the program started in 2010, according to data provided to amNewYork by the city. The good grades are spread out among the boroughs, with Midtown West and Hell's Kitchen taking the top honors with 583 A's.
There were only 385 C grades, about 1.6%, but those marks were scattered throughout ZIP codes. The Lower East Side had the highest concentration of C's with 14 in the 10002 ZIP code.
Daniel Kass, the deputy commissioner for environmental health, said the increase in A grades is proof the system works.
"The public wants the best. Restaurants know this and grading has enabled and forced some restaurants to step up their game," said Daniel Kass, the deputy commissioner for environmental health.
Restaurant and business associations agreed that the grading system is successful, though they say some tweaks are still required.
"There is a cultural and linguistic barrier for some of the owners," said Wellington Chen, the executive director of the Chinatown Partnership. "There is a certain way of serving a food and that goes against the current practice of New York City guidelines. The owners need better education on it."
When a new restaurant opens, the health department conducts an initial inspection and looks for various violations, such as unclean utensils or pests in the kitchen. The violations are tallied in a point system; 0 to 13 points result in an A grade, 14 to 27 points earn an eatery a B and 28 or more get a C.
If a restaurant doesn't get an A at the first inspection, the score is ungraded and the owners have a chance to rectify things before a second inspection about a month later. If the restaurant gets a B or C rating during that unannounced health department visit, it can choose to display its second result or post a "grade pending" poster while it fixes the violations or contests the ruling.
City Councilman Corey Johnson, who chairs the health committee and represents Hell's Kitchen, said the report card grade is a major key in determining an eatery's success.
"Psychologically, it impacts whether a consumer eats in a restaurant or not, so people want to have that A grade," he said.
City Councilman Daniel Dromm, who represents the neighborhood with the most grade-pending scores, Jackson Heights, said that some foodies are savvy enough to put a low grade or grade-pending notice in context.
"That can happen anywhere," he said of the minor violations that can collectively lead to one of those results. "The question is, 'Is it taken care of?' In most instances they are willing to rectify it and the customers understand."
The Dominique Ansel Bakery, for example, shut down for four days during the summer after inspectors found rodents in the bakery. Fans of the SoHo eatery lined up for the famous Cronuts when it reopened, and some said they weren't fazed by the violations.
Kass highlighted recent improvements to the grading system that make the inspections process more transparent, including the ABC Eats app, which provides up-to-date information on inspections.
The health department reformed the grading system in the spring, giving restaurant owners an opportunity to request a penalty-free pre-inspection that allows them to see if they are up to speed on regulations.
Kass said the city also offers consulting and educational sessions on the rules and regulations. Chen said he and his fellow owners saw an increased dialogue about the system but said there are occasional problems when it comes to language barriers.
"There are times when inspectors come to the area and the employees can't explain [their problems] well," he said.
Rosa Abreu, an assistant professor at the New York City College of Technology who used to work in the restaurant industry, said outreach efforts are paying off, especially for immigrant restaurateurs who are unfamiliar with the New York standards.
"The establishments have gotten more aggressive and know what's expected when the inspectors roll out through the door," she said.
The New York State Restaurant Association, once a harsh critic of the system, said it is pleased with the changes. Chris Hickey, the association's New York City regional director, predicted that A's will continue to rise as the system becomes clearer to everyone involved. "The public embraced letter grades. The system is getting better and restaurants are clearly practicing safe hygiene practices," he said.