We asked 3 Reno food experts about the red flags they look for when eating at restaurants
What to look for and what to avoid in restaurants to decrease your chances of getting sick. Johnathan L. Wright/RGJ
Out of sight, out of mind.
This familiar saying could have been custom-cooked for the restaurant industry.
With so much of food handling occurring out of sight of diners, it’s easy for the question of food safety to reside out of mind — or, when the subject comes up, it’s easy for folks to assume restaurants are properly storing and preparing food.
In Washoe County, that assumption isn’t entirely unwarranted. Nearly 88 percent of all food establishments passed their inspections since the Washoe County Health District debuted its new inspection system in October 2016, according to a Reno Gazette Journal analysis of more than 7,000 inspection reports.
At the same time, a 2014 report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that restaurants are twice as likely as home kitchens to be responsible for foodborne illness.
In late 2015, to take one local example, the largest outbreak of E. coli in Washoe County history occurred because of contaminated equipment in a downtown Reno restaurant.
With Washoe County food establishments now numbering more than 3,400, according to the health district — and with food safety top of mind after recent national recalls of eggs and romaine lettuce — the RGJ decided to help readers become more informed diners.
We consulted a trio of local food experts for advice on what to look for and what to avoid in local restaurants to reduce your likelihood of getting sick.
Or put another way: Beware the bar snacks!
1. Dirty dining room? Dirty kitchen
Pay attention to the details you can see, said Reno chef Clint Jolly, who has been a butcher, grocer, restaurateur, cooking teacher and caterer during his culinary career.
“Are there cobwebs on the wall art? Stains on the carpet? Dust in the corner of the booths? These are all signs they aren’t paying attention to the cleaning elsewhere in the restaurant, too,” Jolly said.
2. Bacteria on the half shell
Raw and undercooked animal foods can harbor bacteria and parasites that cause foodborne illness (critters that cooking destroys). Folks need to weigh that against their yen for dragon rolls, bivalves and burgers done rare.
Young children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems should avoid the raw bar altogether, said Amber English, a senior environmental health specialist with the health district.
3. Hand in glove
If you see workers preparing uncooked ready-to-eat foods like salads and sandwiches without using gloves, consider this scenario: Worker hits bathroom, does lousy job of washing hands, spreads fecal matter to hateful kale on your plate, norovirus rides along, cue vomiting and diarrhea.
This transmission risk (aka the poopy hands effect) is especially concerning during summer special events season, with all its prepared and street foods, said Phil Ulibarri, health district communications manager.
“It takes only 18 norovirus particles to infect someone, but people with norovirus expel billions of particles.”
4. One of these things is not like the others
Be careful of dishes the restaurant doesn’t typically offer, like ahi tartare in a burger joint. “Don’t order those,” Jolly said — with unfamiliar ingredients, there’s a greater chance the kitchen doesn’t know how to handle them properly.
5. Something in the water
Tap water, seemingly innocent, also offers contamination risk. Such as: a worker scrubbing a bin that contained raw meat, then scooping from the ice maker, then emptying a dishwasher full of sanitized glasses. All without washing hands.
“How the water and the ice in the glass are handled is more the concern for us" than the quality of the water itself, Ulibarri said. “It’s all in the preparation.” Is Acqua Panna looking good right about now?
6. Never on a Monday
Order fish, that is.
“The reason being that the restaurant gets fresh fish in for the weekend, usually on Friday morning, so they’re serving the remainder of that on Monday,” Jolly said.
“If the supplier is doing the same thing, they may be selling old fish to the restaurant on a Tuesday as well.”
7. Danger, Will Robinson
Well, danger if Will is reaching for that shared bowl of bar snacks. How many hands have rummaged through the mixed nuts? Where have those hands been? (You want a belly rub? Good doggie!)
Health district regulations require a serving utensil or individual portions, but communal bowls are sometimes “happening when we’re not at the bars on Friday nights doing inspections,” English said. “I probably wouldn’t eat from them.”
8. When life hands you lemons . . .
Hand them back.
“They’re almost never washed, usually stored in a container that is hardly washed and generally cut by a server that has been handling dirty plates from the table that just left,” Jolly said. “I’ve seen this happen in the best of restaurants.”
9. Due diligence
How are local restaurants doing on food safety? Is raw meat being stored atop the vegetables? Do the sinks lack hot water? Is a dog wandering the bar? The answer to all these questions is yes, according to inspections conducted in the past year or so.
You can view those inspections at the Washoe Eats web page maintained by the Washoe County Health District.
You also can play inspector by downloading the inspection form and corresponding field guide that detail and explain what inspectors look for and how violations can be corrected.
Taking that raw chicken breast off the tomatoes would be a good start.
10. Shaking up safety
Watch the bartender, Jolly said.
“Busy bars are possibly a larger risk to safety than the kitchen. Bartenders are handling garnishes, dirty glassware and sometimes serving food in between. Frequent hand washing is key, as is using gloves appropriately.”
11. Just ask
For some reason, many otherwise forthright folks develop a case of the shy when they eat out. To be savvy diners, they need to get over that.
“Consumers should be comfortable with asking questions,” Ulibarri said. “Don’t be afraid to ask, ‘Where did this food come from? How was it handled?’ "