`Clean Crab' idea draws dirty looks

Doubts arise about crustacean as icon for tidy city restaurants

May 15, 2008|By Jill Rosen and Sam Sessa | Jill Rosen and Sam Sessa,Sun reporters

Baltimore's Health Department would like to give the region's favorite crustacean something of a power trip - influence over where people dine.

With its proposed Clean Crab award, city health officials want the image of a meticulous crab, hung perhaps at a restaurant's threshold, to alert people to Baltimore's most sanitary dining establishments.

Of course, the absence of a tidy crab decal could signal just the opposite.

"The consumer should know," says Olivia Farrow, the city's assistant commissioner for environmental health. "We just wanted to try and really empower consumers."

Though restaurateurs, diners and officials seem to appreciate the essence of the program, they're having a harder time with the icon. Not everyone regards crabs as exactly the quintessence of cleanliness.

"Crabs are nasty," says Joe Edwardsen, owner of Joe Squared Pizza and Bar on North Avenue. "Crabs are disgusting. You don't see raw crab sushi out there, do you?"

Clean Crab wouldn't be the only crab of merit that restaurants would vie for. Restaurants that win the Clean Crab could be eligible for the Informed Crab by voluntarily displaying nutritional facts about their food.

To earn an Informed Crab, chain restaurants would have to post the calories, fat grams and other details on everything they serve. Local restaurants could be crabbed by listing information about three of their popular dishes.

The Health Department, which is still working out the kinks in its plan, will accept feedback through July 1.

If all goes well, officials would like to kick off the program in 2009. Crabs could be posted in restaurant windows by January.

"Hopefully, this will encourage food operators to improve their operations and people will have a guide to what they purchase when they go out to eat," Farrow says.

The Maryland Restaurant Association's vice president, Melvin R. Thompson, who applauds almost everything about the award concept as long as it's voluntary, plans to place an order for an immediate name change.

For starters, he thinks it will be confusing. If customers walk up to the door of a cafe and see a sticker with a sanitary crab, they'll think it's a restaurant that serves crab sans filth.

Owners of kosher restaurants such as Tov Pizza cracked up when they heard about the awards, although they didn't find the idea of slapping a crab decal on their doors that funny.

"It would look silly for us," says Ronnie Rosenbluth, who owns the pizza shop. "Crabs are the epitome of not kosher. I wouldn't apply for it. I wouldn't display it if I won it."

And then there's that peevish meaning of crab that Marylanders don't like to talk about.

"People when they are a little upset can be crabby," Thompson says. "It doesn't really suggest something nice and pleasant about a place - the crab award."

Baltimore's inspiration for the crabbies is New York City, which unveiled its Golden Apple awards three years ago.

Despite the Big Apple's promise to award its cleanest restaurants with not only a certificate but a door decal, it has faced something of a dearth of enthusiasm. Which is to say that of the city's nearly 28,000 eating establishments, only 19 display an apple - down from a high of 40.

Farrow isn't concerned with numbers. She'll be happy if "even just a handful" of Baltimore restaurants apply for the crab awards.

"We just want to get something started," she says.

Howard County also has a program to encourage sanitary restaurants - Healthy Howard.

And 10 years ago, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health instituted a restaurant letter grading system with the cleanest places earning A's.

In the beginning, few restaurants earned the coveted A. But now, 90 percent of the county's restaurants can boast a top score.

"It's been a win for consumers and business owners and public health," says Rachel Tyree, a Health Department spokeswoman. "We get calls from around the world about this program. It's been a gold standard for us."

Buzz Beler, who owns the Prime Rib steakhouses in Mount Vernon and Washington, says he would love nothing more than to show off his spick-and-span restaurants with certificates or decals. If he had the chance, he would display such an honor prominently near the front door.

"If I go to that kind of trouble," he asks, "why shouldn't I be rewarded for it with the Clean Crab?"

But Beler thinks the Informed Crab sounds like a pain in the claw - way too much effort.

Lars Rusins, the Baltimore Foodies founder who eats out at least twice a week, says he couldn't care less about seeing a Clean Crab. But an Informed Crab might sway him.

"I'm trying to watch my weight," he says. "Would it necessarily be a make-or-break decision? No. But would it help sway my decision a little bit? Yeah."

It's unclear exactly what Baltimore's Clean and Informed crabs would look like. Fuzzy bath towels in their pinchers? Tiny tubes of antibiotic shell sanitizer? Perhaps little reading glasses perched on their nonexistent noses?

The prototypical crabs have yet to be realized. The Health Department invites the city's imaginative and artistic residents to bring on the ideas.

Thompson has a few thoughts. But none of them involve crabs.

"We have a state flower that's a Black-Eyed Susan - we could use that. Or maybe they could work in something with Charm City. Like some sort of Charm City Golden Restaurant award. Or how about the Charm City Star - they could get a special star with maybe the dome of City Hall inside, maybe a dome and a knife and fork ...

"I just can't imagine them sticking with this name," he says. "And I love crabs more than anyone in the state, probably."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com sam.sessa@baltsun.com

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