If you've ever worked the front or back of the house in the restaurant business, you're likely very familiar with "the look." It's the moment when the hostess' eyes widen, followed by a quick head nod towards anyone on staff -- anyone -- to please god hurry up and tell the kitchen. The Health Inspector has arrived. Unexpectedly. Bearing a clipboard.
Such is what we witnessed yesterday at Blue Plate Oysterette on Ocean Drive in Santa Monica. We had prime time seats -- the bar, where we were sitting (of course), overlooks the tiny kitchen. Yes, we felt like shallow, eavesdropping extras on Gossip Girl as we leaned in to catch what the inspector had for lunch before hitting a high-end seafood joint (a hot dog). But hey, it was just lunch. Turn the page for more.
The kitchen chaos that ensues in any kitchen after an inspector arrives (the neglected corner of the kitchen counter gets an emergency wipe, that stainless steel container of naturally fermented crème fraîche mysteriously disappears) is fairly easy to contain from customers' line of sight in most restaurants. But Blue Plate lacks that handy item -- a kitchen door, or any doors, for that matter -- to keep the eagle eye antics out of view. The seafood bar is more of a shotgun Manhattan design than the typical L.A. penthouse restaurant suite. Which means the kitchen is front and center, in full view of virtually every patron.
The inspector, whose name is Dan (or so we overheard), strolled in shortly past 1:00 on Monday, just as the rush lunch was at its peak. It was pretty remarkable to watch the ten minutes of pleasantries that ensued. Remarkable only as we expect to find voodoo dolls of health inspectors with stakes through their hearts in most kitchens. But those moments quickly came to a close when Dan pulled out his notepad and began peeking in every nook of the cramped kitchen while the half dozen line cooks tried to get lunch out for waiting customers. Not going to happen.
The half hour of nail biting was followed by a rather positive-looking wrap up, or at least until Dan headed to the secondary bar sink to wash his hands. He lathered up (quite well, we might add, like a doctor preparing for surgery), rinsed his hands, and then tried to turn off the faucet. But it kept running. Oops. You could almost hear the "Oh shit" murmur along the bar, where customers were watching the "Will that A become a B?!" stage antics with bated breath.
Dan jotted down something about the faucet, then took a seat across at a corner table to write-up his report. Typically inspectors will stay in the back of the restaurant, out of a customer's site. But as Blue Plate's manager said, "We have no 'back' and I'm not about to make him sit in the garbage alley."
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Meanwhile, the staff, between pacing back and forth, sent out bowls of Peruvian Ahi ceviche and apple tarts to the half dozen remaining customers, one of the many benefits of an already highly entertaining lunch hour. Dan politely declined lunch ("I stopped in Costco on the way over to get a hot dog.") and sat in the corner, hand writing several pages of inspection notes on very official looking 1960s-era carbon paper documents, a process that took a good 45 minutes (get the man a laptop already -- he's on the city's clock). What followed was a very somber meeting with the chef and manager, in which the phrase "it's just procedure" came up several times, followed by Dan offering suggestions to avoid this or that infraction. Judging by the long faces, it seemed as if a "B" rating was going to be handed out.
Then, suddenly Dan stood up, grinning, shaking hands. The kitchen and wait staff sensed it, we all sensed it. This was a fairytale Peruvian ceviche-Costco hot dog "A" ending.