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About restaurant inspections . . .

On a trip up Interstate 79 several years ago, my traveling companion suggested we stop at a restaurant I had never heard of despite many trips up that road.  

The Wonder Bar on a hilltop off the U.S. 50 exit in Clarksburg is close to the interstate but not visible from there. You have to know about it, and somehow I didn't.

The name gave me no clue, but my buddy was confident we would have a good meal.

Did we ever.

It's an old-fashioned Italian steakhouse that has been in operation since 1946. When we were there, old black-and-white photos lined the walls, and the décor was hardly trendy.

 I recall a crisp salad, perfectly cooked steak, baked potato and sautéed mushrooms. It was basic stuff satisfyingly well done.

But there was another dimension to this hidden gem.

It was immaculate. As I commented about that, my foodie friend said something that has stuck with me.

Diners concerned about the cleanliness of a restaurant kitchen should visit the restroom. Tidy bathrooms usually indicate tidy kitchens, he said.

The Wonder Bar passed that test with flying colors. The place is still open, by the way, and a recent online review gave it five stars.

His theory came to mind as I thought about the ongoing furor over Kanawha County restaurant inspections.

The saga started when a new inspector, freshly schooled in the rules and intent on doing her job well, started marking up score sheets left and right.

Restaurant operators howled. Officialdom weighed in.

They're rethinking the system. The Kanawha-Charleston Board of Health is stewing over better ways to notify the public of inspection results without damaging businesses and wreaking havoc with its own budget.

The scenario is not hard to envision.

 A restaurant gets a bad inspection that is posted — possibly in bright colors — in prominent view of patrons. It's not a stretch to imagine some people turning around and walking out.

So the operator hustles to correct the problems. This is a good thing and the main point of the exercise.

But next comes the rub.

That restaurant is going to want a re-inspection right away, before the business suffers.

The health department has a limited number of inspectors and thousands of eating establishments to worry about.

In an earlier era, my dietitian mother was responsible for the cleanliness of a hospital kitchen. There were health department inspections in those days, too, and the standards were just as hard to meet as they are today.

She would bemoan the fact that one employee making a simple mistake — like washing his or her hands in the wrong sink — could result in a black mark.

The Daily Mail started publishing inspection scores in the 1970s. Apparently it caused quite a stir. To demonstrate how hard it was to keep a kitchen clean, the editors had one of the inspectors visit a reporter's home.

As the story goes, the score was low and his wife, who hadn't been warned, was furious.

In the current dust-up, some interesting trends are in play. People are eating out quite frequently. Witness the profusion of new restaurants in town.

Society also is becoming hyper-aware of cleanliness. Reports of food-borne illnesses are in the news regularly.

We're cautioned not only to wash the produce and cook the meat thoroughly, but also to stay home if we're sick and to wash our hands, over and over.

I'm nagged by the giant bottle of hand sanitizer near the newsroom door as I pass by several times a day.

I want to dismiss all this as over-reaction in the viral information age, but I can't quite.

During a recent bout with a cold bug, I found myself using paper towels to grab doorknobs. I had never done that before.

So here we are, sanitized people expecting squeaky clean restaurants.

But I doubt very many of us want to pay higher taxes to support more inspectors.

How should this shake out?

Perhaps we'll end up with the Lake Woebegone effect, with all the restaurants above average.

If that occurs, let's hope it will be due to more restaurants meeting the standards, not a more lenient inspection process.

I think I'll continue to check the bathrooms.

Friend is editor and publisher of the Daily Mail. She may be reached at 348-5124 or nanyaf@dailymail.com.


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