For years, Orange County has been the contrarian while its neighbors have used distinctive and easy-to-spot letter grades to alert would-be diners what to expect when they swing open the door to a restaurant.
Now, Orange County is studying whether it too should move in that direction — but rather than assign letter grades, it's considering using colors.
Think traffic lights.
The color-coded system advanced by the county grand jury — green, yellow and red — would be similar to those used in Sacramento and Alameda counties. Supervisors have three months to respond to the suggestion.
Currently the county uses small, nearly identical orange decals to inform customers how a restaurant fared in its latest health code inspection, with the words "Pass," "Reinspection due, pass" or "closed." The decals, sometimes faded or posted in obscure spots, are easily overlooked.
Although county leaders have periodically considered instituting a letter-grade system like the one that's been in place in Los Angeles County since 1998, they've balked at the estimated $500,000 cost and the potential impact the system would have on businesses.
"I think most of our restaurant owners and chains would easily get green decals," said Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach, who supports the grand jury recommendation. "If you have a yellow decal, it might affect your business … but it's a helpful incentive to make sure our constituents are protected and getting the quality of food that they should expect."
But others point out that Orange County is one of few jurisdictions in Southern California without letter grades, and a system too different from its neighbors' could confuse customers.
"This whole color thing is way too unique and it's out of step with everybody else," Supervisor Todd Spitzer said.
Spitzer, who helped implement the current orange decal system about 10 years ago, said he still prefers letter grades, though with diners increasingly turning to the Internet for guidance, he said it might not be a good use of county funds.
Already, diners can access restaurants' most recent inspection reports online, as they can for Los Angeles County, among others. And Denise Fennessy, director of environmental health for the county, said a mobile app to access inspection results is in the works.
Angie Pappas, spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Assn., said evolving technology has made more information available to consumers.
Yelp Inc., for example, has been working with local jurisdictions, including Los Angeles County, to post health letter grades on its restaurant pages.
So although the association typically advocates for a broad pass-fail system, Pappas said, its priorities have shifted toward "making sure restaurants get a fair shake" and customers are presented with the most up-to-date information.
Jenny Ross, owner and executive chef of 118 Degrees, a vegan restaurant near South Coast Plaza that specializes in raw cooking, said customers are "starting to ask more questions" about the way their food is prepared.
On a recent afternoon, as a lunch crowd of young mothers, local office workers and twentysomethings meandered through the courtyard of the SoCo Collection, a shopping center in Costa Mesa, Ace Aldana, 44, paused after meeting a friend at the center's upscale Seventh Tea Bar.
He said the lack of those blocky blue letters in Orange County restaurant windows had never really registered and a color-coded system seemed intuitive.
Karly Cable and Drew Mattocks, both 20-year-old Biola University students, said they consult Yelp before going out, but if they notice a rating placard when they arrive at a restaurant, it might affect their decision about whether to eat there.
Cable said the color-coded system might gloss over subtleties.
"I feel like a B is still pretty good," she said. "Whereas I feel like seeing a yellow, I'd be like, 'Eh.'"