"There are no gray areas in (the District's) truth-in-menu regulations," says the man who enforces them, Robert Beck.
After listening to the explanations restaurateurs offer for the disparities between what their menus say and what they actually serve, it's easy to understand why Beck says "everything is black and white."
Since last September, the D.C. Environmental Health Administration has been including truth-in-menu inspections along with its regular restaurant sanitation inspections and reporting the results of both. Restaurants cited for menu violations are given two demerits.
Even though the District government began an educational campaign over a year ago, dozens of restaurants are still selling frozen shrimp as fresh, regularground beef patties as sirloin burgers, picnic shoulders as ham or commercially prepared products as homemade.
Beck admits that some misrepresentations are more serious than others though all are treated equally. Calling a regular chicken a spring chicken "isn't important," Beck says. A spring chicken implies youth, but almost all chickens served today are very young. Describing blue cheese as Roquefort cheese on the menu, however, is a matter of economic deception because Roquefort is more expensive than blue cheese.
When restaurateurs are asked why they have been cited, most of them either claim ignorance of the law or say that they were in the process of changing their menus when the inspector arrived.
Some excuses, however, are more imaginative. And a number seem quite reasonable to someone not required to enforce the law.
A few examples:
The Old Ebbitt Grill was charged with describing the pecan pies on their menus as homemade. The health inspector said they were not made on the premises, hence they were not homemade. The Old Ebbitt's owner explained they had been made at Clyde's, a restaurant in Georgetown he also owns.
The manager of the Devil's Fork restaurant said his menus were not accurate when checked because he had only taken over the restaurant on Oct. 6, complete with old menus. The week of Oct. 9 the inspector found, among other things, that the milk-fed baby veal was not milk-fed and that the Virginia ham was actually Cure 81, a boneless cured ham.
The day the inspector came in, the violations were corrected, the manager said.
Eggs described on the Gourmet Delicatessen menu as jumbo AAA were actually large Grade A. The restaurant's owner explained: "There is no such thing as a triple A egg. It was a printing error. They were called jumbo because we used to sell jumbo eggs retail in the store and we used the same in the restaurant. Eventually we stopped carrying dairy products, but we didn't pay any attention to the menu."
Over at the Foundry, an inspector discovered that the homemade ice cream on the menu was actually Haagen-Dazs. Explained owner Duncan Horn: "We had been serving homemade ice cream but the health department said our machine didn't meet the standards so we stopped making it, bought the best we could and hadn't reprinted the menus.
"We could have written over the menu, but I didn't think it looked very professional and I felt I was giving the customer something comparable, if not better."
Still, Horn thinks truth-in-menu "makes sense. With a little more effort on the restaurant's part, there's no problem about complying at all," he said.
Byron Pettito of Pettito's thinks "truth-in-menu is good for business," but he's "not really crazy about the little things." Like the disparities with which he was charged: describing domestic salami as imported and egg noodles made elsewhere as homemade.
Said Pettito: "Basically all of our fetucine noodles are made fresh daily for us, but because we use such a great quantity of them -- 30 to 40 pounds a day -- we don't have the capacity to do it here like we did when we first opened so it is made by someone else for us. We were caught in a little technicality on the homemade part. The menu will now say 'made fresh daily.' Vace's Delicatessen makes them for us."
As for the salami, Pettito's uses a brand with an Italian label, but it "has been made in Pennsylvania for the last 1 1/2 years. It was more or less a mistake on our part," Pettito says. "They were absolutely right."
On the other hand, the Bread Oven claims its demerits were a mistake. They were charged with selling frozen trout as fresh. One of the owners claims the frozen trout "was for the help."
At the Serbian Crown, among other alleged misrepresentations, the menu listed fresh Nova Scotia salmon. The inspector found salmon in the freezer. Said owner Zlatan Stamenitch: "This is the most expensive smoked salmon. When we had too many, we had to freeze it. Now we do not freeze it anymore; now we receive it every week."
Stamenitch has also stopped putting the word "spring" in front of his roast lamb and no longer describes the trout as having come from Virginia, even though that is where he buys it. He is quite upset with the charges: "This is a total misunderstanding with the health department man. We like to cooperate with them, but there is no reason to destroy a business."
The owner of the Old Europe, Karl Herold, is equally unhappy with the inspection system. The restaurant received demerits for describing its blue cheese dressing as Roquefort. Herold said the reason he called it Roquefort is because "nobody here knows what blue cheese is."
The Cote d'Azur, a franchised operation in a Holiday Inn, was cited for some of the same alleged violations two weeks in a row. The franchise owner, Tino Trakas, said he had changed the Western duckling to Midwestern duckling since the birds came from Wisconsin and had eliminated the word "choice" from an item listed as ground choice beef. "I find it difficult to understand," he said, "because it (choice) doesn't pertain to the kind of beef."
According to government regulations, both federal and local, "choice" is a descriptive term which indicates the grade of beef. Choice ground beef is more expensive than regular ground beef.
Trakas, who agreed that "ground round" is "definitely different from ground beef" because "it's less fat," denied that he has anything on his menu called "ground round." According to Beck, "the two inspection sheets show that on Oct. 20 and Oct. 27 it was labeled ground round and they were using ground beef."
Trakas says, "They may have seen a special that was ground round and that's what they saw."
The owner of the Hoya Inn, George Jones, doesn't think much of the inspection system. "If they knew what they were talking about it would be all right," he said. "I've been in this business a long time."
At the Hoya Inn, according to the inspection sheet, veal patties were described as veal cutlets, chicken salad was made from turkey roll, pork shoulder picnic was called ham.
"I don't care what they say, it's ham as far as I'm concerned," Jones said. He also does not agree with the definition of veal patties though he did not offer his own. "Veal patty is not made from ground veal," he said.
According to the administrator of the D.C. Environmental Health Administration, Bailus Walker: "The substitution of veal steaks or patties for veal cutlets on the menu represents a loss of quality and value to the consumer." Veal patties, he said, are a ground, formed product.
Jones has changed his menus.
As in the case of the ice cream which once was made on the premises, a number of restaurateurs once served what they have continued to advertise.
The manager at the Black Rose said that restaurant used to serve prime New York sirloin steak and prime club steak "and then we changed it to choice but we didn't change menus because we can't change menus every day." The restaurant, he said, changed from prime to choice "maybe in '76." The menus now have been changed.
At the University Club, which was charged with repeat violations on a second inspection, they were "in the process of changing the menus right this minute," to reflect that the ground sirloin steak was made with regular ground beef, not sirloin. "We used to have ground sirloin," said the club's food and beverage manager, Raza Rehman, "but not anymore."
Rehman agreed "it would make people think they were getting something more expensive if it was called sirloin instead of regular ground beef."
The manager of the Class Reunion denies that her kitchen serves any regular ground beef, though it was cited for listing ground beef as ground sirloin.
"The invoice lists ground sirloin and we pay the price for ground sirloin. We serve no ground beef," Joan Gerbach explained. When the inspector came "the bag said ground beef and we didn't have the inspector may have written it down, but the inspector didn't take points off. Everything here is 100 percent as advertised on the menu. invoice because it had been sent to our main office. The I wouldn't want to go to a restaurant that said one thing on the menu and served another."
Beck stated, however, that the Class Reunion was "debited for not being able to prove that the meat was actually ground sirloin."
Told of some of the explanations that had been offered, Beck laughed and said, "We've heard them all before."
Each District restaurant now has been inspected at least once. But Beck said, "Just because you don't see their name doesn't mean its okay. It may just mean we didn't catch them."
Beck said that for repeat violations, "We can call them in for a hearing. What action we will take after that, I can't really say."
In other jurisdictions violators draw stiff fines. One Los Angeles restaurant paid $10,000 for describing frozen fish as fresh, as well as other misrepresentations. In the past Beck has said the District would never go for that kind of penalty.
"You write a law and they'll find another loophole," he said. "Education is the way to change attitudes."
But last week Beck admitted he was surprised at the number of violations that still have been turning up.