You’re strolling through your neighborhood, eager to try something new, and you spot a bar. There’s just one problem: a big red Health Department-sponsored flag on the front window by the door reads “B.” Do you turn around and run, or do you risk it? Is it even a risk at all, or is it safe to drink from B-rated (or, heaven forbid, C-rated) bars?
Let’s start with the basics: If a bar, restaurant or restaurant bar has any rating at all, then it’s been deemed safe enough to eat and drink at. If the Health Department believes an establishment is a hazard to people’s intestinal safety and general wellbeing they just close it down. That said, a place with an A rating gets a lot more sanitation cred from the general public than anywhere with a B or C. But behind every letter, there’s a little nuance.
New York City is one of the most transparent about what goes into giving bars and restaurants health grades, so we’ll use the city and its 24,000 inspected locations as an example. The Health Department grades each location based on a scoring system: 0-13 points give you an A, 14-27 points give you a B and 28 points or more result in a C. The most basic things inspectors are looking for when making a rating are food handling (garnishes included), food temperature, personal hygiene, facility and equipment maintenance and vermin control. Violations are given points for how severe they are, making health rating scores like golf: the lower the better.
The severity of a violation is broken into three categories:
A public health hazard: Minimum of seven points added on for things like food not at the right temperature, which isn’t an issue if you’re at a bar that doesn’t serve food. If the violation can’t be fixed by the end of the inspection the restaurant can be shut down.
A critical violation: Minimum of five points added on. Includes things like serving raw things without properly washing them.
A general violation: Minimum of two points added on. Includes things like not properly sanitizing equipment, but also includes more ambiguous things like inadequate lighting (which is considered important to allow people to see what they’re doing in food prep to make sure any unsanitary conditions can be seen) and leaving straws out in the open rather than “protected from contamination.”
A full list of violations and their severity can be found on the city’s “What to Expect When You’re Inspected” guide.
In most cases, one single violation isn’t enough to move a bar from an A to a B rating, it has to be a litany of things. But the most egregious single violations, like “greater than 20 live roaches” in an establishment or more than four live animals, will shut a place down, not lower its grade. But then the nuance of grades sets in. The New York Times did an inspection to see how every place with a Health Department grade ranked. This included bars, restaurants and restaurant bars. They found that the majority of places with an A grade just barely made the cut with 11, 12 or 13 points. More than 55 percent of places with an A got 13 points—just one shy of the dreaded B. Health inspectors were more likely to just barely give it to places that were on the B verge, as four times as many establishments got an 11, 12 or 13 than got a 14, 15 or 16.
All of this is to say that there is not a strong reason to believe a place with an A is dramatically more hygienic than a place with a B. There’s a good chance the B-rated bar is just as safe as the A-rated bar and the latter just caught the inspector on a good day. So unless you’re getting sushi from the bar, you’re probably fine if there’s a big B on the window.