After starting to pop up last spring, emojis are now in the windows of 7,412 King County restaurants to indicate how good their health department inspections have been. But what should the various happy — or not-so-happy — faces mean to you?

Share story

Is it actually okay to eat at a restaurant with a food-safety rating of just “OKAY”?

It’s been about a year since the signs started popping up at Seattle restaurants. After extensive work by the King County powers-that-be, we finally got a window-placard health-department-rating system, just like grown-up cities like New York or L.A.!

Now every spot gets a display card with an emoji: an overjoyed smiley-face with a ready-for-feeding, wide-open maw for “EXCELLENT”; a regular smiley face for “GOOD”; a face with a reserved little sideways parenthesis of a smile for “OKAY”; and a flat-line, meh-mouthed face for “NEEDS TO IMPROVE.” Ratings are based on the last four inspections, the better to track a place’s performance over time; restaurants are also graded on a curve compared to those nearby (which caused some controversy, but here we are). There is no frowny face.

But how much should the restaurant-window emojis influence you? A reader named Dave recently wrote asking for advice. “I finally looked at the online info for the county’s system and was struck by the descriptions of the various rating levels,” he said. “An ‘OKAY’ rating is characterized by ‘many’ red-level violations as observed in inspections; ‘GOOD’ is characterized by ‘some’ red-level violations; and ‘EXCELLENT’ is characterized by ‘no or few’ such violations. By these standards, I feel pretty leery about any that are rated ‘OKAY,’ and even the ‘GOOD’ rating is not too inspiring.”

Dave noted that he and his partner have eaten at restaurants with just “OKAY” ratings of late without any ill effects. “Perhaps, though,” he wrote, “we’ve simply been lucky with these types of restaurants and will likely have a bad experience if we continue to patronize them.

“Is there a rating at or below which a diner may want to avoid the restaurant?” Dave asked.

Good question — and the answer is, as you might expect, it depends. First and foremost, for the immunocompromised, very old or young, or those in another high-risk group, sticking with the highest-rated places is the best idea.

Beyond that, the good news is that restaurants rated “OKAY” really are okay. They’ve been put on notice about their health-code violations and know they must work to fix them; they’ve received education from the health department on how to do so, sometimes with additional staff training. Dave mentions recently eating, happily and healthily, at two particular Seattle places with “OKAY” ratings: Seattle Deli and Ba Bar (the latter rated “OKAY” for its 12th Avenue and U-Village locations, “GOOD” in South Lake Union).

I eat at Ba Bar every few weeks, and have done so for a long time; Seattle Deli is my banh-mi go-to, and has been for years. I eat at plenty of places with less than excellent ratings — and all kind of restaurants get dinged for all kinds of stuff. After I recommended the much-lauded, upscale Bateau for a special-occasion dinner, a reader named Terri wrote back, “Sounds great, but why is the food-safety rating just okay? Not reassuring.” What is reassuring is our system’s transparency: You can look up any restaurant’s inspection history on the county’s website to see exactly what kind of violations they’ve had. In Bateau’s case, it looks like they’ve had issues with workers not wearing gloves (talk to a chef about this and you’re likely to get an earful on how stupid depending on those for hygiene is — gloves get dirty too), and with specialized processing (having to do with their cryovac machine). These inspections date from a year ago January and last August; Bateau also received an education consultation in December. I am free to go eat steak at Bateau tonight, if somebody else is paying.

All King County restaurants are regularly and rigorously inspected, and the system works well in preventing food-borne illness. Being in good health (knock on wood), I’ll eat at a “NEEDS TO IMPROVE” spot, too — and if the food’s good, I’ll go back. There’s no frowny-face restaurant-emoji for a reason: Places that get too many violations, places that are likely to make people sick, get shut down. As King County’s food and facilities manager Becky Elias told me as the new system was being implemented, “We address imminent health hazards by closing the business.” These businesses also receive education, and they have to show that they’ve shaped up in order to reopen. When they do, they get the “NEEDS TO IMPROVE” emoji (and there is no grading on a curve for that). All restaurants are “held to the same food safety standards,” Elias said. And a restaurant that’s trying to bring the smile back to its emoji’s face is highly aware of those standards.

As of right now, 7,412 of King County’s restaurants have gotten their emoji window signs, and the rest will have them by this summer. It’s been a long time since I got sick from eating out locally (knock on wood!), while the memory of the last time that happened abroad is horribly fresh (I can tell you that, um, vivid story sometime … or not). We’re lucky to have the system we have. Don’t worry — “OKAY” is okay. Happy eating!