City inspectors closing more restaurants for health violations

  • By Alex Parker
  • Staff Writer
  • February 26, 2009 @ 11:00 AM

Brigitte Lyons says her time as a waitress and as a tourist in Mexico has steeled her for what comes out of the dingiest Chicago restaurant kitchen.

“I always assume that restaurants are unsanitary places, and I generally don’t like reading about what goes on behind the scenes.  I’ve worked as a waitress and in the kitchen before, and I’ve seen firsthand how unsanitary it can be,” says the 27-year-old Wicker Park resident.

Rats, cockroaches, rodent feces and other nasty disclosures have caused more than 40 Chicago restaurants to close so far in 2009, as city health inspectors continue to crack down on health code violations.

With the closure of Nigerian Kitchen in Uptown on Monday, 44 restaurants – just under one a day – have been ordered to close, pending re-inspection and an administrative hearing.

Officials closed the restaurant after a patron complained of seeing staff killing rodents with kitchen utensils, and after inspectors discovered mouse droppings and other critical violations of the health code.

Chicago Department of Public Health spokesman Tim Hadac says that number is higher than average, even though the department is conducting business as usual. Hadac says he expects the numbers to level out as the year progresses.

Twenty restaurants were closed by this time in 2008, and 36 in 2007. The 44 restaurants closed thus far are a five-year high, according to health department statistics.

Final figures for 2008 aren’t available yet, says Hadac, but the city closed 232 restaurants by November 2008, and 264 in all of 2007. If the current pace continues, 290 restaurants could close in 2009.

The city stands to make a sizeable amount of money off health code violations. Fines range from $250 to $500, and those can add up when a restaurant is cited for multiple violations. Health code violators were assessed more than $2.5 million in 2007 and more than $2.6 million in 2008, according to Department of Administrative Hearings statistics.

The Department of Administrative Hearings tracks fines assessed to restaurants. If the trend continues, health code violators - including restaurants, schools and other instituation that have food licenses - could contribute even more to city coffers in 2009.

However, the city does not track how much money comes directly from restaurants cited for health code violations, says Ed Walsh, spokesman for the Department of Revenue.

Still, the specter of unmentionable violations doesn’t deter Lyons from visiting some of her favorite spots, even after they’ve been shuttered by health inspectors.

“If a restaurant was inspected, shut down and allowed to re-open, you know it was looked at pretty thoroughly and worked its way back up to a passing score,” she says. “That’s more than you can assume about most places.”

Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17