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High-end fare, with side order of violations

Some of the city's top eateries cited for lack of cleanliness

A patron gave her car keys to a valet at Mistral last month before entering the South End establishment. A patron gave her car keys to a valet at Mistral last month before entering the South End establishment. (DINA RUDICK/GLOBE STAFF)

For a decade, Mistral in the South End has ranked consistently as one of Boston's best and most popular restaurants. And among its most expensive: Chef Jamie Mammano's signature entrees include Dover sole meuniere with lemon and capers for $48.

Boston's restaurant inspectors, however, have given it much lower grades. On April 1, 2006, an inspector made a surprise dinnertime visit to Mistral's kitchen. She discovered workers mixing salads and handling food with unwashed, bare hands. Even worse, she found partially cooked entrees left out at room temperature, to be cooked to order when needed -- a practice that can cause bacteria to multiply quickly.

Mistral is not alone. A surprising number of Boston's high-end dining rooms -- including such noted venues as the Harvard Club on Commonwealth Avenue -- have been cited for serious health code violations of the sort that can cause food poisoning, according to a Globe review of city inspection reports for 2004, 2005, and 2006. Nearly half of the 50 restaurants whose records were examined had been flagged for major -- and sometimes chronic -- violations.

All too often, Boston health inspectors find rodents and their droppings, employees who handle food without wearing gloves or hair covering, trendy bars that keep open bottles in ice that is used in glasses, dishwasher rinse water that is not heated to 180 degrees, and food left out in violation of temperature standards that are designed to prevent diners from becoming ill.

The inspectors demand that such practices cease immediately, and most of the time, compliance is swift. The city, however, keeps these findings out of the reach of consumers, despite a pledge seven years ago by Mayor Thomas M. Menino to make the information easily accessible. When the Globe asked for inspection reports on 47 restaurants, the Inspectional Services Department refused to fulfill the request unless the newspaper paid $2,039 in advance.

Worse still, the Globe's investigation found that the restaurant inspection system stands on spindly legs -- and not just in Boston. Many Massachusetts communities, Boston among them, are so understaffed that they cannot meet state requirements that food service establishments be inspected at least twice a year. One example: Mistral has not been inspected in the 16 months since that 2006 visit.

With too few inspectors, any food safety training is bound to reap benefits. Even so, the Globe found that the state's mandatory training and certification standards for both restaurant inspectors and restaurant managers are minimal.

A Globe reporter signed up for the nationally accredited certification exam and passed it easily -- without attending a class or reviewing any of the reading material. The reporter, Jennifer Nelson, is deemed qualified to oversee food safety precautions in any restaurant. The credential would also allow her to become a municipal restaurant inspector.

Last week, the National Restaurant Association, which sponsors the exam, said it may revoke Nelson's certification.

All of which amounts to a multicourse headache for restaurant patrons. One in four Americans gets food poisoning each year. The training standards for restaurant managers and inspectors are widely viewed as insufficient. Most local health departments do infrequent and often cursory inspections, and many file the reports out of public view.

Earlier this year, the Massachusetts state auditor concluded that the state Department of Public Health is understaffed and cannot fulfill its mandate to ensure that the state food code is being followed in the Commonwealth's 351 cities and towns.

"Visiting a restaurant that is not following the food code can be dangerous," especially for people with weakened immune systems, said Stephen E. Martinello, a registered sanitarian who directs all quality control and inspectional services for Legal Sea Foods, the restaurant chain that is known throughout the industry for its fastidious attention to cleanliness.

That standard of cleanliness has not been a priority at many expensive Boston restaurants.

For instance:

At Figs on Charles Street, which is owned by celebrity chef Todd English, a patron who complained in 2005 that a mouse was dining on leftovers at a nearby table reported being told by an employee that nothing could be done. By the time an inspector showed up six days later, telltale evidence remained: rodent droppings in the dining room. Sixteen months later, inspectors found rodent droppings and a decomposed mouse at the restaurant.

The year 2006 was not the best for the Federalist, the ultraexpensive dining room at the XV Hotel on Beacon Street. Early in the year, according to state health records, three patrons reported becoming ill after eating lobster bisque. Last September, after another diner reported becoming ill, an inspector found serious health code violations, including a roach infestation. The city ordered the restaurant closed for several days.

The Union Oyster House, a magnet for tourists, has also been a draw for rodents and flies, according to the observations of inspectors and complaints from consumers. It also has been cited for another violation that is surprisingly common at Boston restaurants -- bottles of wine and other liquids chilled in the same ice used in glasses.

At the new Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Boston Common, the JER-NE bar had such a bad fruit fly infestation last summer that one patron reported swallowing three bugs with his drink. The manager told a city inspector who came by 18 days later that the bar had a "serious" fruit fly problem the month before. The hotel declined to comment when contacted by the Globe.

Violations are common
Virtually every restaurant, even those most attentive to health regulations, gets cited for some violations during inspections, though their shortcomings are most often minor, such as a storage room floor that is dirty, a refrigerator gasket that needs replacing, a dumpster area that needs a precautionary cleaning or a customer restroom that needs a trash receptacle.

But at too many restaurants, inspectors regularly find violations that suggest that managers and owners do not take in-house food safety training seriously, especially for immigrant employees with limited English language skills. As a result, many workers do not wash their hands between tasks or wear hair restraints, do not change gloves when appropriate or even wear gloves when handling bread and other ready-to-eat items.

Such findings may surprise most consumers, because the city's Division of Health Inspections, which is part of the Inspectional Services Department, keeps its reports buried in file drawers. An ISD website -- http://www. cityofboston.gov/isd/health/mfc/court.asp -- offers only limited and outdated information. And what the site does have is difficult to understand for anyone who is not a food safety specialist.

When the Globe asked for the inspection reports, ISD said it would take 78 hours of staff time, plus copying costs, to produce them -- at a cost of $2,039. When the newspaper challenged the estimate, city officials recalculated the time involved, and reduced the cost to about $600.

Also kept under wraps, available only through a formal public records request, are the identities of close to 400 food service establishments -- the Federalist included -- that have been temporarily shut down since 2002 for food safety violations.

In an interview, Thomas J. Goodfellow, the director of ISD's Division of Health Inspections, could not explain why Boston, unlike other cities, had not publicized the closings, or even posted them online. State law, Goodfellow said, does not require it.

Seven years ago, Menino promised that the city would make both closures and inspection findings public. "Making this information easily accessible to the public will not only help people make better choices, it will also encourage restaurant owners and managers to keep their restaurants clean and their food fresh," Menino said at the time.

In a recent interview, Menino acknowledged that the city website is difficult to navigate, and he promised that consumers can expect to find "comprehensive information" about inspections posted within six to nine months.

However, the mayor expressed concern about the economic damage to restaurants that are closed if the action is made public. However, he later said through his spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, that the city would soon begin to post on the website the identities of food establishments that are shut for health code violations.

Inspection shortfall
Food safety in restaurants is a worrisome national problem. With Americans now eating nearly half of all meals away from home, the incidence of food-borne illnesses -- food poisoning -- has become a persistent public health problem. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million people contract food-borne illnesses each year -- at home and after eating out. About 325,000 people are hospitalized, and an estimated 5,000 people die.

Yet in most communities, health departments have to fight for scarce budget dollars. In Boston, for example, the number of restaurant inspectors has been cut from 22 to 18 in the last five years. Among restaurant executives and food safety specialists, Boston's inspectors are considered to be knowledgeable and, for the most part, exacting. But they are stretched thin: According to federal guidelines that state regulators support, the city should have between 28 and 30 inspectors.

Menino, citing budget constraints, said he cannot foresee restoring the four positions that were cut, much less hiring 10 or 12 new inspectors.

For those reasons, food service establishments in Boston are not inspected nearly as often as the state requires -- a statutory violation that the city matter-of-factly acknowledges in its annual reports to the state.

Boston inspectors are responsible for overseeing 4,799 licensed establishments that serve food -- convenience stores, fast-food outlets, full service restaurants, caterers, nursing home, and hospital kitchens.

Facilities that serve high-risk populations, such as nursing homes and hospitals, are supposed to be inspected three times a year. Yet nursing homes and hospitals are inspected, on average, about three times every two years.

Caterers, considered high-risk because they often transport cooked food and reheat it, are also supposed to be inspected three times a year, but they average one inspection a year.

When city inspectors do visit, they come armed with a checklist containing dozens of health code requirements. Among other things, they look for evidence that managers are trained in food safety; that kitchens, storage areas, and restrooms are clean; that perishable food is properly refrigerated at correct temperatures and that cooked foods -- soups, eggs, and potatoes, for instance -- are kept well-heated and temperatures are constantly monitored; that there is not water leakage and openings that might draw rodents; that kitchen equipment, like cutting boards, may need to be replaced; and even that employees are not washing hands at sinks reserved for washing produce.

Not all violations are equal. For example, evidence that food is being held at the wrong temperature -- which the inspector found at Mistral -- or that there are signs of rodents are considered to be "critical risk factor violations," which can cause food-borne illness. "Critical violations" -- a frayed refrigerator door gasket, for example -- could contaminate food if not fixed. "Noncritical violations" might include a citation for a light bulb that needs replacement or a floor that needs sweeping.

The most critical violations are supposed to be remedied on the spot. If immediate compliance is not possible -- a rodent problem that needs an exterminator would be one -- the city can temporarily close the establishment. That seldom happens; ordinarily, with patrons oblivious to the problem, the city allows the restaurant several days to resolve the problem.

Serious violations require a return visit to check for compliance.

Violations at Mistral
Yet restaurants that have been cited for serious deficiencies do not often get extra attention. In 2004, 2005, and 2006, for example, Mistral received just three regular inspections. In June 2005, the city threatened Mistral with closure when it did not quickly correct food code shortcomings. Yet it did not receive another visit until Diane Chalifoux-Judge, a city supervisor, entered in April 2006 after a patron reported becoming ill.

During her three-hour inspection, Chalifoux-Judge wrote in her report, employees were mixing salads, handling desserts, and cutting meat with bare hands. And she found cooked fish, filet mignon, and partially cooked rack of lamb kept at room temperature.

"No evidence of knowledge of employee health policy," the inspector wrote in her report. She ordered Mistral to throw out some of the food.

The restaurant's managers were summoned to an informal meeting two days later at ISD's office. Goodfellow said there is no record of what happened during the meeting.

Mammano, the chef and co-owner of Mistral and three other expensive restaurants, including the Federalist, said in an interview that he is "most demanding" on issues of kitchen cleanliness and food safety.

The violations at Mistral, and those that led to the closure at the Federalist, which was recently replaced with a new restaurant, Mooo, are rare, he insisted. "We are not careless. We are very diligent about health standards," Mammano said.

Mammano said that the four restaurants -- Mistral, Teatro, Sorrelina, and Mooo -- have 200 employees and together do $30 million in annual sales. "We run a very successful business. Do people screw up? Yes, they do. But whatever the issues, minor or major, we react immediately," Mammano said.

"I thought we were very good, but obviously on a couple of occasions, we were not very good," he added.

As for the Federalist, Mammano explained, there had been a changeover to new employees, including a manager, who had yet to be properly trained. When an inspector, Karen Green, found numerous violations, and little evidence employees were aware of proper procedures, the restaurant was shuttered for several days.

The Mistral inspection by Chalifoux-Judge was unusual for another reason: It occurred during mealtime. Much of the time, Boston's inspectors do their inspections before or after restaurants cook meals for patrons, when practices like those at Mistral would not be evident.

Goodfellow asserted in an interview that his inspectors arrive unannounced during dining hours, even though their workday is 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. But when the Globe checked inspection times at 16 well-known restaurants for the three years, it found that 22 of 37 routine inspections were done during the midmorning or midafternoon hours.

At the Union Oyster House, which serves lunch and dinner, none of its seven routine inspections between 2004 and 2006 took place during either meal.

And in five visits in three years, city inspectors found evidence of rodents at the restaurant.

In June 2006, one inspector wrote: "Clean table next to dishwasher of rodent droppings." Four months earlier, another inspector reported: "Observed live mouse in pastry shop." Goodfellow's office also received three consumer complaints about rodents in 2004 and 2005.

The city inspectors, even when they found substantial evidence of rodent infestation, did not record the violation as among the most critical, which it is under the code. For example, on Feb. 12, 2003, inspector Thomas J. McAdams found rodent droppings at six separate sites in the restaurant.

"Remove evidence of rodent droppings," he wrote six times in his report.

McAdams also wrote: "Need to clean and sweep at night before you go home. You are leaving lots of food on floor/under floor mats, etc. . . . Currently leaving food on floor and in sinks. This will not help battle with rodents."

McAdams, after finding more rodent droppings during a visit four months later, was replaced by another inspector who recorded no single serious violations of any kind during six inspections over the next 20 months -- during a period when customers were phoning in rodent complaints.

Goodfellow acknowledged that he and Joseph A. Milano, the Union Oyster House's owner, are "close friends."

He said his inspectors know of the friendship, but insisted that the restaurant has received no preferential treatment.

Milano, asked about the rodent issue, said: "I take objection to the word 'rodent.' It's mice droppings." And mice, he said, "are in the same family as squirrels." He said he spends substantial money each year on pest control. "We have high standards, and we uphold them," Milano said.

Goodfellow also said his inspectors are required to respond to consumer complaints within 24 to 48 hours. But, with his staff stretched thin, that doesn't always happen. For example, the ISD Division of Health Inspections was notified July 14, 2005, by a consumer who had eaten at Figs on Charles Street.

"Saw mouse sitting on table eating food. Management states nothing can be done," the patron said.

It wasn't until July 20 that inspector Mark Bernard visited Figs. Bernard found four "critical risk factor" food code violations, which are termed so because they have the potential for causing food poisoning. One of those critical violations: Bernard found rodent droppings under seats in the dining room and on walls, pipes, and ledges in the basement. The city scheduled a hearing to close Figs, but canceled it after the restaurant remedied the violations.

Despite this complaint and a separate food-borne illness complaint five months earlier, Figs was not inspected again until November 2006 -- 16 months later. During the 2006 inspection, Figs was found to have several more serious violations, including rodent droppings, a dead and decaying mouse on the floor of the storage closet, and live German cockroaches.

George K. Regan, a spokesman for Todd English's restaurants, said that neither he nor English would answer questions about the violations. "Figs resolved these incidents some time ago," Regan said.

Goodfellow, in an interview, downplayed the importance of rodent infestation, saying, "Rodent droppings are not as important as someone not washing their hands."

Quality control
Martinello, who directs all quality control and inspectional services for Legal Sea Foods 33 restaurants, 13 of them in Massachusetts, also believes that hand-washing is critically important. So important, in fact, that when workers at its restaurants use the soap dispenser, they must continue washing until they hear a beep 20 seconds later.

But Martinello, echoing the view of other food safety specialists, says the regular presence of rodents and insects is evidence of inattention to cleanliness standards. Restaurants, he said, can prevent the problem by denying rodents access, food, and water. Rodents, Martinello said, "go where the food is. They break into containers. They defecate where they eat, and that can contaminate the food. It is a very serious situation."

In the restaurant industry, Legal Sea Foods is known for its fixation on cleanliness. All its seafood is quarantined and tested for pathogens at its South Boston laboratory before being sent to restaurants. Martinello and Deborah Rosati, a registered sanitarian who is a consultant to the chain, inspect every restaurant monthly. These are not drop-by visits; they spend five to six hours combing through every facet of the operation.

If Martinello or Rosati find any serious problems, Martinello said, the restaurant manager's bonus is cut. If problems persist, he said, "we have a management rearrangement."

In an interview at his testing laboratory, Martinello said he is astonished that some restaurants are lackadaisical about cleanliness. "A lot of places don't do enough because it involves labor costs," he said. "But restaurants should be proactive. If you are, it will save you money, because if someone gets ill, it can cost you 40 percent of your business."

Mammano, the Mistral chef, said that right after the Globe asked about the inspection records at Mistral and the Federalist, he hired a food safety consultant to do inspections and staff training at his four restaurants.

Said Mammano: "We have long been obsessive about the quality of our food and our service, and dedicated to cleanliness. We need to be obsessive about cleanliness as well."

This article was reported for a graduate seminar in investigative reporting at Northeastern University by four students, Nelson, Hankinson, Jane MacKay, and Melissa Lattman. Their work was overseen and this article was edited by Northeastern journalism professor Walter V. Robinson, former editor of the Globe Spotlight Team. Robinson can be reached at wrobinson@globe.com. Confidential messages can be left at 617-929-7483.

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