New Times examined the records of 50 popular local restaurants to see how health inspectors graded them over the past two years. Of 57 possible violations -- as outlined by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Division of Hotels and Restaurants -- we concentrated on seven categories generally considered to be serious. To accomplish this, infractions dealing with the risk of bacteria growth were combined into a single broad category.

For example, under our heading "Possible Spoilage," we grouped four separate violations: 1) Source of food not in sound condition (which could mean the restaurant's fish supplier was casting his net in airport runoff canals, or it could be as innocent as one dented can of peas in the pantry). 2) Potentially hazardous food does not meet temperature requirements during storage, preparation, display, service, transportation. 3) Facilities do not maintain product temperature (a refrigerator could be out of whack or overloaded with food, or food could have been left standing out too long). 4) Potentially hazardous food improperly thawed. A citation for any one of those violations would be enumerated under "Possible Food Spoilage." Other categories include:

Dirty hands. Are waiters, food preparation workers, and chefs following instructions to wash their hands after using the restroom? A dead giveaway is whether the kitchen sinks and/or the bathrooms used by employees are equipped with soap, towels, and hot water. Many aren't.

Dirty dishes. Restaurants are required to use a sanitization rinse as part of a three-step dishwashing process. State inspectors check such things as water cleanliness, water temperature, concentration of bleach or iodine, exposure time, and whether equipment and utensils are properly sanitized. A problem with any of the above will lead to a citation.

No hot water. Do all the kitchen sinks have hot and cold water? Does the dishwasher maintain proper water pressure?

Dirty equipment. Is the slicer cleaned between uses? Or is a beef-bloodied blade also used to cut tomatoes? Could an enterprising cockroach feast on food particles left in the microwave? Is the cutting board layered with memories of meals past? In inspector lingo, are "food-contact surfaces and utensils clean [and] free of abrasives and detergents"?

Food storage problems. Is food kept covered and stacked on shelves? Or are pots found on the floor and vegetable platters left uncovered in coolers?

Vermin. This includes mice, rats, cockroaches, and flies. The violation would seem to speak for itself, but state inspection forms do not distinguish between a full-fledged cockroach invasion, rodent droppings, or an open back door. New Times studied inspectors' notes to determine the source of each violation (excluding open doors), but the chart to the right does not reflect the degree of violation. Your favorite restaurant may have been cited because an inspector spotted one roach or an entire colony.

To be included among the 50 restaurants listed here, a dining establishment had to have been inspected at least three times in the past two years. Because of this, a number of prominent Dade County restaurants were ineligible for inclusion, either due to inadequate inspections resulting from manpower shortages, or because their files were incomplete.

Nearly all of Dade's approximately 6000 restaurants have violated state health codes at one time or another, but a restaurant's violations in the past do not necessarily indicate ongoing problems. New Times does not intend to suggest that any of those included here are among the worst offenders.


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