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Restaurant owners get a tough lesson from Philadelphia’s Health Department

Southwark restaurant in Queen Village has opened two days after a city health inspector shut it down after owners rebuffed her attempts to perform a routine inspection.

The closure notice affixed to the door of Southwark at Fourth and Bainbridge Streets, as seen on Dec. 9, 2021.
The closure notice affixed to the door of Southwark at Fourth and Bainbridge Streets, as seen on Dec. 9, 2021.Read moreJESSICA PARKER

You can fight City Hall, just not during dinner service.

Southwark restaurant in Queen Village has opened two days after a city health inspector shut it down after owners rebuffed her attempts to perform a routine inspection at the busy restaurant about 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Chef and co-owner Chris D’Ambro said his wife, Marina De Oliveira, asked the inspector to wait outside when she walked into Southwark, which had 50 patrons inside. When D’Ambro emerged from the kitchen and tracked down the inspector, she told him that she was annoyed about having to wait outside. D’Ambro told her that he did not have time to accompany her on the inspection, as chefs often do. He asked if she could come back.

The inspector offered two options: allow her to do the inspection then or face an immediate shutdown for 48 hours, pending an inspection. City guidelines include a refusal clause that requires food establishments to acquiesce to inspections, a Health Department spokesperson said.

When D’Ambro again asked her to reschedule, the inspector called her supervisor. After the call, the inspector told him that she was calling the police. At that point, D’Ambro said he agreed to the inspection, but the inspector told him that she would not do it.

The restaurant was ordered closed, and police officers stood by as customers were given their checks and boxes of uneaten food. The inspector affixed a cease-operations notice to the glass window of the front door, which, D’Ambro conceded, De Oliveira had attempted to scrape off.

The restaurant was assessed a $315 cease-operation fee.

The Health Department said the inspector had described D’Ambro as “combative.” D’Ambro said, “She was about to disrupt my business.”

Routine inspections usually last one to two hours, covering all areas of the restaurant, including storage, kitchen, restrooms, exterior, and bar. They are performed while the establishments are operating to assess the food-handling practices, said a Health Department spokesperson, adding that the department tries to inspect each at least once a year.

There are no rules for the timing. Restaurants can be inspected during prep work or service.

A spot-check of recent routine inspections at other full-service restaurants showed inspectors arriving at various times, from late morning to the dinner hour. Some were conducted during prime time. For example: On Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, records show, an inspector visited Forsythia in Old City from 4:45 to 6:15 p.m. and followed up at the nearby Buddakan from 6:20 to 8:30 p.m.

For Southwark’s last inspection, on Sept. 25, 2019 — also a Wednesday — the inspector clocked in at 4:55 p.m. and left at 6:15 p.m. D’Ambro said the restaurant was not busy during that dinner-hour inspection.

“For them to expect they can walk in and disrupt our business is completely unreasonable, especially these days,” D’Ambro said. Southwark was closed for indoor dining from mid-March 2020 till late September 2021. “You’re going to come in here and disrupt our guests’ experience, walking around here with a flashlight in the middle of people eating,” he said.

Though the attempt at inspection apparently was proper, the abruptness of the closure was unsettling. Among those uprooted was D’Ambro’s mother, Gail, who had stopped for the first time since the pandemic for dinner on her way to the Andrea Bocelli concert at the Wells Fargo Center. D’Ambro said one customer demanded a gift certificate for her trouble, while another customer put down $400 to help staff that had lost tip money.

“I was kind of perturbed because I was [thinking] ‘this better be a good reason to have everyone leave during the beginning of dinner rush,’” said Jessica Parker, a customer who was there with her mother. She called the shutdown “a misuse of power. ... I don’t want my taxpaying money going toward beating down restaurants that have already suffered enough from COVID. This is so out of line and all the staff is wearing masks and everyone is following the rules, from what I’ve seen.”

The Health Department spokesperson said the inspector “had no choice but to call the police because of the way our staff person was being treated. This is our policy. We don’t want to close a facility. We just ask that these places do what every other food establishment in the city does. ... Harassing our inspectors and telling them to stand outside in the cold is not normal and not excusable.”

D’Ambro said he also was concerned about the optics of the sticker on the door, which could suggest that Southwark had sanitation issues. The restaurant, which he and his wife bought in 2015 and reopened in 2016, has not been sanctioned or shut down previously. D’Ambro is proud of the hygiene; he has a chef’s table in the kitchen.

A different inspector arrived at 3 p.m. Friday for a scheduled inspection, and the restaurant passed.