What Those Health District Letter Grades Really Mean

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

When it comes to dining and germaphobia, there are two types of people in this world. The first immediately looks for a health district-issued letter grade before he or she would dream of sitting down in a restaurant, and wouldn’t dare eat a bite at a spot that had anything less than an “A” proudly posted for all to see. The second assumes that, as in all aspects of life, shit happens, so why fret about a “B” grade, or even a “C”? I generally fall into the second category. I’ve had some of the best meals of my life in home kitchens that would never pass a health inspector’s checklist. But am I really playing Russian roulette with my stomach if I grab a meal at a location with a “B” hanging on the wall?

Each of the 16,530 restaurants supervised by the Southern Nevada Health District must undergo an unannounced inspection during business hours at least once a year. If a restaurant has any condition that poses an imminent health hazard, it will be immediately closed. Those problems include a lack of power or hot water, backed-up sewage or a “multigenerational” roach population near the food. Yes, those things are pretty gross. But on the bright side, they have nothing to do with posted letter grades. If they’re detected, a restaurant is closed!

But the health district also looks for situations that have the potential to cause a health hazard if not fixed. These can range from improper cooling temperatures to a blocked hand-washing station. And all of them result in demerits. There are 23 possible reasons for demerits, which range in points from three to five. If a restaurant receives 10 demerits or less, it retains its “A.” If it gets anywhere from 11 to 20 demerits, it gets a “B.” Twenty-one to 40 scores it a “C.” And anything more than 40 results in closed doors until everything is rectified.

So what should you assume if you see a “C” grade hanging in the door of your favorite restaurant? “While we would close it if it was unsafe,” SNHD’s environmental health supervisor Robert Urzi says, “that ‘C’ is alerting the consumer that we did see some risk factors there that need to be corrected.”

But you should never see a “B” or a “C” hanging in a restaurant’s window for long. By law, operators have 15 days to resolve problems—although many choose to do so sooner. Upon re-inspection, each original demerit must have been addressed or the rating will drop to an even lower grade: a “B” will become a “C” and a “C” will become closed.

So if you see anything less than an “A” grade at your favorite restaurant, odds are they’re addressing problems that were never considered imminent health hazards to begin with. Of course, the question lingers: Would Urzi eat there?

“There’s a lot to choose from in Las Vegas,” Urzi says. “So, unless I really wanted to eat there that night, I would probably go to another one of my locales, knowing I could give that restaurant [with the lower grade] time to correct their issues. But if I really wanted it, I would eat there, because I’d know it wasn’t closed for being unsafe.”

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