A TV documentary with a hidden camera in the kitchen of a well-known chain restaurant had my wife and me cringing: To speed up production, the hamburger grill cook licked his fingers first every time he picked up a slice from a slab of cheese.
Fair or not, I haven't returned to any of that chain's restaurants since.
Dining out, most of us operate on blind faith. We can't go in the kitchen, so we hope all is well back there, because we like that particular restaurant's food.
Even without a kitchen peek, there are tips we can follow to rate a restaurant for good health standards, said Bill Ford, who oversees restaurant inspections for the Orange County Health Care Agency.
One sure way, if you want to go that far: Call its custodian of records and request inspection reports--they go back five years--for any restaurant in the county. That's (714) 834-3536. Allow a couple of days and pay 15 cents a page. Ford says some people do.
* Check a restaurant's perimeter. At some smaller, family-
owned restaurants with no room to expand, the kitchen is extended to the outdoors. Bad. Never eat where food is exposed to outdoor elements (flies, stray dogs).
* Check the dining area floors. "Dirty floors often mean a dirty kitchen," Ford said. "If a waitress is tracking in grease from the kitchen, you know there's a serious problem."
* Ditto on restrooms. Good restaurants post signs inside restrooms with a schedule showing how often they are cleaned. And great restaurants will have an employee initial those signs each time the work is done.
* Check your server's personal hygiene: "If their uniforms are covered with food spots, you can guess it might be a sloppy operation," Ford said.
* Beware if home-cooked food is brought in--scores of small restaurants are doing this, Ford said: "If it's cooked at home, we have no way of inspecting conditions there."
* Check for general cleanliness. For example, peek into the waiter station. If things are haphazard there, they probably are in the kitchen too.
* Don't get too impressed if your server, say at a buffet line, is wearing plastic hand baggies. "That gives you a false sense of security," Ford said. "Most of us are constantly touching our ears or the back of our necks, or scratching our nose. Servers wearing those baggies do the same thing."
* If there's a buffet table, stir the soup. If you don't see it steaming, don't eat there.
* Also, some operators stack up extra pans of food on the buffet line to give you more choices. If it's not from a heated pan, avoid it.
These last two bring us to the most serious problem in public dining: food temperature.
State law requires that most restaurant foods be preserved either under 41 degrees or over 140 degrees. Anything in between allows bacteria to build up, which can lead to food sickness.
"I could throw dirt in your food and it would be less dangerous for you than if you ate something with a sauce that had been sitting in the kitchen all day at a medium temperature," Ford said.
Just to be safe, I ordered up the latest inspection for the place where I've eaten more lunches the last 19 years than all other places combined: my newspaper's cafeteria in Costa Mesa.
The results--whew!--a "good" rating. (The choices are excellent, good, average, fair, poor and "legal action.") The cafeteria report showed only a few "minor" violations and a "good" on the all-important one, hot food temperature.
How about where you eat?