NEW YORK — New York City's 24,000 restaurants include fast-food outlets selling chicken by the bucket and temples of haute cuisine where multi-course tasting menus can cost hundreds of dollars per person – before the wine.
But whether they have three stars from Michelin or three flavors of milkshake, all the restaurants soon will share some common ground – a letter-based A, B or C – grading system aimed at informing diners about cleanliness and food safety.
And it has some restaurateurs worried that restaurants that earn a B or a C will go out of business as diners flock to the competitor with an A in the window.
"Some will undoubtedly close if they get a B or a C," said Robert Bookman, a lawyer for the New York State Restaurant Association, which vehemently opposes the letter grades.
Others say they accept the new system and will strive for an A.
"It is our goal always to get an A," said David Chang, whose hotter-than-hot restaurants include Momofuku Noodle Bar and Momofuku Ko. "If we don't get an A, we fail."
Chang said he has sent his sous chefs to city Health Department workshops to get up to speed on the new system.
Health officials say they are changing the way they rate restaurants because every year 11,000 people go to hospitals in New York City for food-borne illness related to eating out, and that number is rising.
The letter grade system is similar to one that has been in use in Los Angeles since 1998, and public health authorities there say food-borne illness has declined as a result.
"If L.A. can to it, we can do it," said Associate Health Commissioner Elliott Marcus.
New York City already inspects restaurants and gives them violation points for infractions ranging from mice and cockroaches to a refrigerator that's not cold enough.
Inspection results are available on the Health Department's website – if you know where to look.
"Most people walking down the street deciding where to eat don't have access to the website," Marcus said at a workshop on the new system in Flushing, Queens.
That will change when restaurants are required to post their grade in a prominent spot. Grading begins in July, but it will take a little more than a year to grade all of the city's existing restaurants, according to the health department.
Restaurants that get fewer than 14 violation points will earn an A. Between 14 and 27 points will be a B, and more than 27 will be a C.
Restaurants that don't ace their first inspection will have a chance to bring up their grade. A restaurant that gets more than 13 violation points will be reinspected within a month. If it still doesn't qualify for an A, it must either post its B or C grade or display a placard that says "Grade Pending" while it appeals the bad grade at an administrative tribunal.
The appeals process is intended to give restaurateurs a chance to plead their case. But critics are not mollified.
"What's the customer going to do then?" said Marc Murphy, the owner of Landmarc in Tribeca and at the Time Warner Center, plus a fish restaurant called Ditch Plains in Greenwich Village. "Grade pending. What does that mean? Is that bad or is it really bad?"
As a judge on the Food Network's "Chopped," Murphy lowers the boom on chefs who can't make tasty dishes out of mismatched ingredients. He is equally critical of the letter grade system, which he considers arbitrary and unfair.
"Either you're clean enough to operate and you're legal, or you're closed," Murphy said in an interview at his Tribeca restaurant, which, as it happens, earned a perfect score at its last inspection. "Close the restaurants that are dirty."
Murphy complained that restaurants can get docked for things that are not directly related to food safety, like a poorly lighted storeroom or a leaky faucet.
"I would hate to see a restaurant close because they had a leaky faucet and a light bulb that wasn't lit quite right and they got a C and they couldn't end up staying open because the place next to them had an A," he said.
Murphy and others also say the grades will be subjective because inspectors have different standards.
"The issue that may arise is the inconsistency from one inspector to another," said Charles Masson of La Grenouille, the last of New York's classic French restaurants.
After a dozen years, Los Angeles restaurateurs still are not fond of the system, said Madelyn Alfano, who owns nine Maria's Italian Kitchen restaurants.
"If you don't have hand towels in your restroom that's points off," Alfano said. "We don't like it but we've learned to live with it."
Letter grade systems also are in effect in North Carolina and South Carolina. Larry Michael, head of food protection for North Carolina's Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said the system works well.
"Consumers really pay attention to the rating cards," Michael said. "The A, B, C system is familiar and it's easy to interpret."