March 14, 2012

The Taste Bud: Does your favorite spot make the ‘A’ list?

Daniel Meyer has a fun job — he’s the guy who goes to your favorite restaurant and inspects it for cleanliness and protocol. Usually, Meyer says, everything looks fine and dandy.

Sometimes, though, there’s a mop and 10 gallons of black water in the hand-washing sink. Or mold in the prep bowls. Or a sewage backup so strong it makes your eyes water. Or worse.

Oops.

The Louisvillian wrote and released a book called “True Tales of a Health Inspector,” which offers up some eye-opening and often funny insights into and stories about this interesting occupation. Of course, “funny” depends on how easily you are disgusted. There are, indeed, some stories in the book that will make you think twice about dining out. In fact, he says he and his fellow inspectors close about 20 restaurants per year, give or take.

The good news is this: If there’s one thing you should glean from the book, it’s that most restaurants are perfectly clean and safe for dining.

At the same time, it’s best to know what to look for. First off, be conscious of the “grades” restaurants receive from health inspections, which are posted in store windows. An “A” grade, obviously, is the best, followed by “B”; “C” gets you there, but puts you on the brink. Meyer points out in the book that if a restaurant consistently receives a “C” grade, it may be wise to eat elsewhere.

What’s funny is that apparently some restaurants camouflage the big “C” sign in their windows by using it to spell out fun slogans, such as “Go Cards!” (You can’t spell “Eat Elsewhere!” with a “C,” so it makes sense they would go in this direction.)

I caught up with Meyer recently and asked him a few questions about his experiences and the local dining scene’s cleanliness, and he was as forthcoming as a health inspector can be — without risking his job.

Taste Bud: Are there any restaurants in town at which you refuse to eat?
Daniel Meyer: Yes, there are a few restaurants in town I will not visit. Some restaurants I avoid due to managers or owners who despise me, and it would be a hassle to eat there; I also do not trust their pettiness in handling my food behind closed doors. I cannot mention names for legal reasons.

TB: Are there any stories so scary they didn’t make your book?
DM: Words can only paint so many pictures, and any inspections that didn’t make the book were due to risks of revealing the restaurant name by vivid descriptions. The book pretty much covered the gamut of dirt and disgust and stupidity.

TB: Are there any cuisine types that stand out as repeat offenders?
DM: Repeat offenders are typically some fast food, mom and pop, Mexican and Chinese.

TB: Do sushi restaurants have higher standards given they are serving raw fish?
DM: Sushi/Japanese restaurants usually do very well. … All-day buffets often have difficulty — including those that include sushi to an otherwise myriad other items.

TB: And now the one we’ve been waiting for — where do you eat out?
DM: My personal favorites are Sapporo and Sol Aztecas in the Highlands, Shiraz Mediterranean Grill, Red Lobster and Joe’s Crab Shack, Panera Bread and McAlister’s. I eat out a lot!

And there you have it: a true “A” list from a real-life health inspector. Hey, if he feels comfortable dining out in Louisville, chances are we all should. Well, within reason.

You can get more, um, dirt on the local dining scene in his book, which is available at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and elsewhere. Go to Meyer’s website at gargoylesandmoonvixynns.com to find out more.