Did you know that Alinea failed a health inspection? Does merely saying that immediately conjure up visions which will forever spoil your dining pleasure there? Or does it merely whet your appetite for more dirt on the alleged dirt at fancy restaurants? That’s the issue raised by the news that the city is now putting health inspection results online for customers to peruse— that patrons will overreact to information online because they don’t understand the inspection process. For instance, Alinea was written up for having a soup that was in an ice bath but had not yet fallen to refrigeration temperatures. Simple math should tell you that a soup cooked at 160 degrees will spend time at other temperatures in between on its way to 40 degrees or less, but "Alinea Written Up For Cooling Soup" didn’t make as exciting a teaser for the media as "Alinea Fails Health Inspection." And so a kitchen which, based on our experience, could show the Naval Academy a thing or two about shipshapeness gets tarred with headlines that make it sound like the cooks let their cigarette ashes fall into your scrambled eggs.
In fact, with something like 3000 possible violations according to some counts, chefs say that there’s no working kitchen on earth that isn’t violating something at some point. Which is in part why the inspection process allows for on-the-site correction; health inspectors don’t shut places down for most infractions, they use them as a teaching opportunity, saying "tsk tsk" and making restaurants prove they understand the rules. Shutdowns are typically for serious violations which require either a thorough top to bottom cleaning or structural work to install, say, running water in a particular spot.
But the question remains— do customers understand that? Will they look at the city’s records the way they look at Yelp reviews— understanding that there’s always the occasional exception to the rule, the one guy who gives a 4-1/2 star place an outlying 1-star review? Or will any presence on the list tend to stick to a restaurant— especially when publicity gets involved, as it did for Alinea in the Tribune, on local TV stations, etc. or Sunshine Cafe here? The Sun-Times piece on the latter seems to take particular glee in pointing out that a "foodie favorite" and LTHForum "Great Neighborhood Restaurant" was shut down for fairly significant violations.
We’re sure some of those are serious (although we’re not entirely sure that rusty shelving matters in any meaningful way to the dining experience) and on the whole we’d like Sunshine Cafe to be clean the next time we go there. On the other hand, we know that Sunshine Cafe is the sort of ethnic business that hangs by a thread in a trendy neighborhood, and at the moment we strongly suspect that the elderly Japanese woman who runs it with her son, and who came to Chicago to escape the internment camps during WWII, and who shut it down once already for health reasons of her own, is wondering whether it would be better to just retire for good rather spend a lot of money on fixing the place up and then try to fight the image created by the recent publicity. And if Sunshine Cafe goes and gets replaced by the latest Andersonville concept, we’ll lose more than a few rusty shelves.
Ultimately, maybe the question isn’t, can ordinary customers make responsible use of this data, but can reporters— or is any catchy name on the list bound to get a gotcha, and see itself in headline type and Google search results from now on?