More consumers are aware of the Los Angeles County health department’s system for rating restaurants with a letter grade than they are of its alcohol abuse or bioterrorism preparedness programs, according to the results of a survey released Wednesday.
The 4-year-old system is also apparently having a significant impact on local dining habits, with 88% of those surveyed saying they would eat at a restaurant posting an A grade, but only 25% saying they would eat at one with a B.
A mere 3% of the 2,000 consumers questioned by the Department of Health Services said they would eat at one of the 580 restaurants countywide that earned a C or lower.
Restaurants appear to be getting the message.
About 83% of the 36,000 restaurants in the county received an A last year. Only 52% did as well when the program began in 1997, said county health director Jonathan Fielding.
“I can’t think of a more popular government program,” he said. “Consumers are rating it a big success, and they’re voting with their feet.”
That’s not entirely true.
The big red C in a plastic pouch posted above the counter at Pipiripau Tacos in Burbank didn’t bother co-owner Rebecca Sanchez or her stream of customers Wednesday night.
“One time I told a customer it stands for Christ so they wouldn’t bug me about it,” she said.
Customer Luky Sanchez, no relation, also dismissed the poor grade, saying, “We love this place,” as she finished a beef taco and ordered a bag of burritos, tortas and more tacos to go.
Then she ordered one more beef taco for “my baby,” a 6-month-old Rottweiler waiting in the car, which dispatched it in two bites.
For 91% of those surveyed, however, letter grades matter.
“We won’t eat anywhere that’s not an A,” said Pamela Gibberman, 48, of Panorama City as she and her husband Jay, 49, strode beneath the bright green awning of California City Buffet in Northridge on Wednesday evening to attend a meeting -- but not to eat.
A red C was posted to the left of the front door. A day earlier, health officials had lowered the rating from a B when they saw an employee wash his hands at the wrong kitchen basin.
“If we don’t see it posted, we ask,” Pamela Gibberman said. Added her husband, “We’ve walked out of places because the grade was too low.”
Behind them was Deanna Rabang, 30, and her friend Mary Ochoa, 28, both of Van Nuys, who were more forgiving. While they usually tend to avoid C restaurants, they liked this place so much Saturday, when it was still rated B, that they came back.
“If it was really bad, they’d shut it down,” Ochoa said.
That’s what happened at Billy Boy’s Cafe in Pearblossom six weeks ago after health officials said they discovered too many cockroaches, no hot water, and fries on the freezer floor.
Manager Robert Winton said he wouldn’t argue with most of the findings that earned his restaurant a rating of 59%.
(Restaurants that rate below a C are assigned a percentage number instead, starting with 69. Any rated below 60 run the risk of being shut down, county officials said.)
Winton said the system was good except “when they start nitpicking about every little thing.”
“Our motto is great food and lots of it,” he said, “and we have a great reputation, so we’re going to bounce back.”
In the meantime, he said, the owners are spending an estimated $30,000 to $40,000 on upgrades.
At the Caffe Luna on tony Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, Mona Coots simply ignored the “66%" sign posted over the entrance.
After all, she had devised her own rating system for restaurants.
“If the bathroom is clean,” she said, “I don’t have a problem with the place.”
Times staff writers Louis Sahagun and Daniel Hernandez contributed to this report.