Many Dot eateries get ‘A’ grades even as they routinely fail on-site inspections

Three Dorchester restaurants were temporarily shut down within the past three months by City of Boston officials for failing to comply with state health code regulations.

Although such events are not that frequent, the reality is that many restaurants in Dorchester fail their health code inspections on first tries and sometimes on second tries, thus requiring remedial efforts.

The three eateries that were ordered to close temporarily by city inspectors recently are the Saigon Chicken House (32 violations), Saigon One (15 violations), and La Parrilla (10 violations). About half the violations at each of the three operations were serious in nature. After the proprietors fixed the problems, they were allowed to reopen.

Still, these three establishments are serial violators of the health code, having failed a number of their prior health inspections as well. And for two of the three — Saigon One and La Parrilla — the most recent episodes were the second time within the space of four months that they were shut down by city inspectors.

The Reporter contacted the owners of the three restaurants to offer them the opportunity to explain why they’re having so much difficulty passing the inspections. Two responded.

“It’s not easy to understand all the complicated requirements that we have to meet,” said Mary Gil, the owner of La Parrilla, a Mexican restaurant. “We try really hard and we will make every effort to do better.”

Jenny Ton, the owner of the Saigon Chicken House, pointed to the pandemic as the cause of some of the problems at her establishment this time around. “The city did a training session for us and we’re grateful, and we’re now in compliance and plan to stay that way,” she said.

There are 269 restaurants in Dorchester and many of them repeatedly fail their health code inspections. But the city’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD), which is charged with conducting the inspections, was unable to provide any 2020 data on how many Dorchester restaurants passed their inspections completely the first time; passed with minor violations the first time; and failed their inspections, requiring re-inspection.

ISD inspections, which are unannounced, can trigger three categories of health code violations: non-critical, critical, and critical foodborne illness, also called food poisoning. Left unchecked, both non-critical and critical violations can lead to critical foodborne violations, which can directly cause severe illness. Salmonella is an example of a bacterium that causes foodborne infection.

The three restaurants that were recently shut down by ISD had one or more of these critical and critical foodborne violations: Rodent droppings; failure of employees to wash their hands; workers touching food with their bare hands; failure to maintain food at proper temperatures; dirty equipment such as slicers, knives, and strainers; no hot water; and raw and ready-to-eat food being stored in the same containers.

A number of well-known Dorchester restaurants failed their most recent health code inspections, including the Lower Mills Tavern, Lucy’s American Tavern, Starbucks, Bowery, and Wahlburgers. All of them failed prior inspections as well.

The Massachusetts sanitary code requires municipalities to check restaurants for health code violations twice a year. But the City of Boston obtained a waiver years ago from the state Department of Public Health that allows it to inspect restaurants based on assessed risk — the higher the risk a restaurant’s sanitary conditions represent to the public, the more often it will get inspected.

There are a dozen restaurants on ISD’s high-risk list for Dorchester, none of them being particularly notable. Many restaurants that seemingly should be on the list are not, but ISD did not respond to a question asking why they are not.

Restaurants at educational institutions in the City of Boston are also subject to health inspections. In Dorchester, UMass Boston’s Dining Commons failed its most recent inspection. It was cited for six violations, two of which were critical foodborne, one deemed critical.

“UMass Boston Dining Services is committed to delivering students a safe, high-quality dining experience,” said UMass spokesman DeWayne Lehman in a statement. “This commitment is reflected in our ‘A’ letter grade from the Boston Health Division of Inspectional Services.”
In that regard, there’s an important backstory that puts ISD’s grading system into proper perspective.

In 2016, ISD implemented a grading system for restaurants based on the results of the health code inspections. If a restaurant does not get an “A” on its initial inspection, it can boost its grade by passing a follow-up reinspection that is typically conducted a week or two later. As a consequence, virtually every restaurant in the City of Boston winds up with an “A” to post on its windows or doors, even the ones that are repeatedly failing their initial inspections, including the ones that are shut down.

Right now, every single restaurant in Dorchester has an “A” grade. There are four restaurants elsewhere in the city that have a “B” grade and three a “C” grade.

In an interview, Dan Prendergast, the head of ISD’s health division, defended the city’s grading system. “We’re about compliance through assistance,” he said. “Our job is to point out where the restaurants fall short and bring them up to meet our standards. This is a snapshot in time. But we don’t walk away from a food establishment until they meet our standards.”

The Mayor's Food Court, a city-run search engine, gives residents the chance to review recent violations online.