Beware The Hair Soup

Never mind the Zagat guide. In the town that invented "doing lunch," gourmands can spot a hot restaurant simply by looking at the front door. No, Angelenos don't have more discriminating palates than other foodies--more of them line up for Pink's Famous Chili Dogs on La Brea than wait for a table at Patina. It's just that diners in L.A. have learned their ABCs. Literally. Hanging in the front window of every restaurant in the city is a giant letter in "Sesame Street" colors: a blue A, a green B or a red C. While it may not tell you whether the place has sushi to die for, it will let you know whether the fish is fresh.

These days, it isn't enough for Wolfgang Puck to have J. Lo and Ben as customers. He'd also better have an A from the county food inspector in the window. (Don't worry, Spago fans. It's there.) Four years after the L.A. County Department of Health Services initiated a much-publicized grading system for restaurant inspections, consumers are following the program to the letter. A new survey by the department shows that only one in four residents would eat at a restaurant with a B rating, and only three out of 100 would frequent a C eatery. "I remember going to a Cheesecake Factory with a friend and a bunch of our children. I saw a big C on the front window and turned to my friend and said, 'Okey-dokey. We're outta here'," says diner Erica Chambers.

All of L.A.'s Cheesecake Factories now sport A's, and that's the whole idea, says county Public Health director Dr. Jonathan Fielding. "We wanted to change the incentives." Fielding's own incentive came in 1997, when TV station KCBS sent undercover reporters into the kitchens of some of the city's trendiest eateries and found rat droppings on the floors and chefs picking their noses. Although inspectors had long used a 100-point system to rate the county's 37,000 retail food establishments on their sanitary habits, the scores didn't mean much because diners never really knew they existed. Now eateries are required by the Health Department to post their letter grades prominently, or face closure.

Chef Andre Guerrero guards his A jealously. "If I had anything other than an A, I can tell you that most of my customers would disappear," says Guerrero, who just opened Max, a hot California fusion restaurant in Sherman Oaks. Yet he has had a hard time keeping his A. Not that the health inspector is trying to yank it. "It's being stolen by restaurateurs who have a B or a C," he says. "I've had to put really strong tape around it." The department now numbers the placards to make sure those A's in the window actually belong there.

Stealing someone else's A isn't the only way to avoid the stigma of a low grade. That red Christmas garland left hanging in the window of the Indian restaurant in June? It may actually be there to keep patrons from noticing the red C. One Mexican-restaurant owner told a customer that the C stood for Christ. At La Cucina di Capri pizza in the Century City shopping center, the C is pasted way in the back against a wall. "The inspector said our food was not kept properly warm," says a worker who asks not to be named. "He wanted it stored in heat boxes, but if customers can't see the pizza, they won't order it." Gordon King missed the C when he ordered two slices the other day. "I guess that's kind of disgusting," King said as he took a big bite.

Though many restaurateurs threw fits when the system was unveiled, the grades are making conscientious students out of some slackers. Last year, about 83 percent of the county's restaurants got A's, compared with just 52 percent in the top tier in 1997. The department has won an array of kudos, and health officials from New York to the Netherlands have been in touch about copying the program. "I've had people from L.A. tell me that when they go to other cities now, they don't know where to eat," Fielding says. Maybe it's time Zagat learned its ABCs.