Reservations Recommended

Dirty dishes. Spoiled food. Cockroaches roaming the kitchen. At some local restaurants the proof is in the pudding -- literally.

It is a cinematic moment that can be relished by anyone who has ever overpaid for a bad meal: Donald Sutherland playing a health inspector in the 1978 remake of the sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Nervously shadowed by owner Henri, Sutherland prowls the kitchen of an exclusive French restaurant. He stops before a steaming pot of calf-brain soup and peers into it. Then he extracts a pair of tweezers from the pocket of his trench coat. "What is that?" Sutherland demands, retrieving a brown pellet from the soup.

"A caper," Henri glowers.
"No."
"Do you presume to tell us what is in this stock?" Henri huffs, eyes flashing.

"It's a rat turd," says the unflappable Sutherland, holding up the pellet for closer inspection.

"A what?"
"A rat turd," Sutherland enunciates clearly, savoring Henri's mounting hysteria.

"A cay-per!" Henri growls, clenching his teeth.
"A rat turd."
"A cay-per!"
"If it's a caper, eat it," Sutherland says, ending the discussion.

Henri watches in silence as Sutherland deposits the rat turd in a sample jar. "I'm going to bring you up for permit revocation, Henri," Sutherland says with quiet glee as he continues to wend his way through the kitchen. "You're charging way too much to be serving crap like that in here."

Sixteen years later in Miami, life imitates the movies. Poorly paid and persnickety inspectors continue to strike fear in Miami's bastions of taste and trendiness, chefs complain of harassment, and exclusive enclaves such as the Country Club of Coral Gables are unceremoniously admonished as if they were third-rate greasy spoons.

In the spring of last year, the country club was fined $1900 for failing to eliminate vermin, among other violations. Coconut Grove's Janjo's, whose 1992 opening marked the Miami debut of celebrated San Francisco chef Jan Jorgensen, was fined $1100 this past April after being flagged for twelve violations of the state health code. (Janjo's has since closed for unrelated reasons.) And the owners of Sun Inn II, a popular Chinese restaurant in Coral Gables, offered to shut their eatery voluntarily on April 27, 1994. Spurred to action by a customer's complaint of diarrhea and vomiting after lunching on Sun Inn's chicken and broccoli, a state health inspector had visited the restaurant three days earlier. "At the time of the inspection, [I] found storage areas dirty, the presence of rodent droppings all over the restaurant, rodent holes in the walls," the April 24 inspection report states. It was the sixth time in two years the restaurant had been cited for rodent droppings.

The penalties suffered by such egregious violators would seem to indicate that the inspection system works, that it will ensure there'll be no strange garnishes on your carpaccio, no unidentifiable objects in the bouillabaisse. But an extensive review of health-inspection records kept by the state Division of Hotels and Restaurants, the regulatory agency charged with licensing food service and public lodging establishments and making sure they comply with state requirements for safety and sanitation, reveals enforcement patterns that are haphazard at best.

Records at the agency, which is part of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, show that few restaurants are visited on a regular basis by health inspectors, and fewer still are punished for health-code violations. Despite new training programs meant to standardize the inspection process, alleged violations are often a question of perception. What one inspector sees as critical, another will view as insignificant.

A 476-page tally of last year's inspections reveals that no Dade County restaurant was inspected more than three times in 1993, and most were visited only once or twice. The inspection files of more than 70 restaurants pulled at random portray an agency overwhelmed by its responsibilities. While some restaurants were inspected days or weeks apart, others went without a visit for more than a year. According to Paul Kita, the district administrator for the Division of Hotels and Restaurants in charge of Dade and Monroe counties, each restaurant should have been inspected between two and four times each year, depending on its record of violations the previous year.

As Kita describes it, the process sounds orderly. Inspectors arrive unannounced, check off boxes on a form listing 57 possible violations, and hand over the paperwork to the division's data-entry clerks. If violations are few and minor, the restaurant owner will be told to remedy them by the next routine inspection. If the violations are more serious, the inspector will order the proprietor to correct them by a certain date, usually within a week of the first inspection. If the violations are rectified, the matter is considered closed. If they persist, the inspector can give the owner another chance (and another warning) or issue a "notice to show cause," which automatically prompts a hearing and usually a fine. "Very rarely do we get to that point," says hearing officer Fred Fluty. "Most people wind up taking care of business."

Indeed, only a few dozen hearings were held during the past two years. And only 24 restaurants -- of approximately 6000 in Dade County -- were fined $1000 or more. (See sidebar, page 15.)

State law allows regulators to revoke the operating license of any eatery failing to comply with the health code, but such actions are more common in the movies than in real life. In lieu of paying a fine and remaining open for business, a restaurant can choose to close its doors one day for every $100 in penalties. Once the violations are corrected, the restaurants can reopen after they've been reinspected. During the past two years, six establishments in Dade County voluntarily closed under these conditions.

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