Peppered with questions on restaurant inspections, Bloomberg curdles

Health commissioner Thomas Farley and Bloomberg (Dana Rubinstein)
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A day before Council hearings on the topic, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city's restaurant-grading system "really has done a great job for the public and the industry alike."

The restaurant letter grades, introduced in 2010, have earned criticism from sushi chefs who would rather cut fish barehanded; patrons who like their country-style terrine served soft, rather than icy and hard, as health department standards require; the restaurant owners lobby, which describes the system as a "cash cow;" and Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who, in a discussion with WNYC said, "Even the ones that get As will tell you horror stories about the inspection process that really seem to me to be a little bit, almost, on the harassing side, at times."

Tomorrow, the City Council will host hearings on the topic.

Today, in what could be construed as attempt to preempt further criticism, the mayor joined Health Commissioner Thomas Farley and deputy mayor for Health and Human Services Linda Gibbs at Zero Otto Nove Trattoria, an A-rated restaurant on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, to tout the letter-grading system.

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The mayor said that during its year in operation, salmonella cases fell 14 percent, the lowest level in two decades.

"In Connecticut, New Jersey, and the rest of New York State, salmonella ratings have remained largely unchanged," said the mayor. "So, it's down 14 percent here but in all of the surrounding areas, it has not changed at all. We have a rating system, and they don't. It's pretty hard not to think there is a real connection here."

He also hailed a recent Baruch College survey which found that 91 percent of New Yorkers approve of posting grades, and 88 percent factor the letter grades into their dining desicions. Further, said the mayor, contrary to predictions that the system would depress the $12-billion restaurant industry, total restaurant sales in the city increased 9.3 percent during the system's first nine months.

"People certainly are not being scared away from going to restaurants," said the mayor, adding, "This letter grading system ... really has done a great job for the public and the industry alike."

The mayor also used today's press conference to reveal a new app called ABCEats NYC that will allow New Yorkers to access restaurant grades on their phones.

Following his announcement, the mayor fielded a series of skeptical questions from reporters.

In response to a query about Quinn's criticism, the mayor snapped, "I don't have to respond to that. It's just not true."

"Nobody's ever gonna agree with everything that every inspector does," said the mayor. "It's a subjective thing ... But I think they're all well-meaning, they're all well-trained. They work very hard and I think that the fact is that there are some people that complain because they don't want to keep their restaurants clean. They think it's OK to have mice and roaches and dirt and not have people wash their hands before they come back from the bathroom, and that's just simply not acceptable, and their complaints are gonna fall on deaf ears."

The mayor also addressed a speculative report that Per Se, one of the city's fanciest restaurants, got special treatment in the letter-grading process. 

"[A]nybody insinuating that somebody did something just to take care of a friend is just an outrage," said the mayor. "It's just so unfair. No wonder sometimes it's just so hard for everybody to keep working in this city and trying to do what's right. And trying to disparage people and look for ulterior motives in everything—it's just an outrage."

When a NY1 reporter asked the mayor whether the letter-grading system was also a revenue generator, the mayor was similarly displeased.

"You know, let's stop this," he said, adding, "We put fines in to discourage certain kinds of behavior. That's the reason for the fines. If you get revenue from it, it helps with our budget. It would be wonderful if we never had any more cigarette tax revenue, why don't you write that down ... We don't deliberately fine people for revenues, but if the revenue comes in, we certainly use it to pay our teachers, to pay our firefighters, to pay our police officers."