Posted unobtrusively low in the floor-to-ceiling front window of a trendy salad joint or fading in its plastic sleeve at the sushi place next door, the orange-ringed seal has for decades been a great equalizer of sorts among Orange County restaurants — theoretically useful, but often unnoticed.
Now, an Orange County Grand Jury report recommends that those orange rings be switched out in favor of a stoplight-style color code, reviving a long-simmering debate over the county's restaurant health rating system.
While county leaders have periodically considered instituting a letter grade system like the one that's been in place in Los Angeles County since 1998, discussions have fizzled out over concerns such as the estimated $500,000 cost of implementation and potential effects on local businesses.
The grand jury's most recent report, released earlier this month, floats a color-coded system like ones in Sacramento and Alameda counties. The Orange County Board of Supervisors has about three months to officially respond.
Currently, Orange County residents choosing a place to eat can look for the small, nearly identical orange seals that read either "Pass," "Reinspection Due, Pass" or "Closed."
Under the system proposed in the grand jury report, a green sign would indicate that a restaurant passed inspection, a yellow sign would indicate that a restaurant passed conditionally and is due for a reinspection, while a red sign would denote that the restaurant was closed because of major, uncorrected health violations.
Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach concurred with the report's findings.
"I think most of our restaurant owners and chains would easily get green decals," said Moorlach, who has supported similar efforts in the past. "If you have a yellow decal, it might affect your business ... but it's a helpful incentive to make sure our constituents are protected and getting the quality of food that they should expect."
The color code would also better align with Orange County's current inspection protocols than letter grades, the report argues, and would cost less to implement as a result.
But others point out that Orange County is one of the few jurisdictions in Southern California without those blocky blue letters in restaurant windows, and a system too different from ones in surrounding areas might only confuse diners.
"This whole color thing is way too unique and it's out of step with everybody else," Supervisor Todd Spitzer said earlier this week.
Spitzer, who helped implement the current system about 10 years ago, said he sees a letter grade system as the best option. However, with more diners turning to the Internet for guidance, he said it might not be the best use of county funds.
Already, diners can access restaurants' most recent reports online, as they can for Los Angeles County, among other areas.
And Denise Fennessy, director of environmental health for the county, said a mobile app to access inspection results is in the works.
Angie Pappas, spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Assn., said evolving technology has made more information available to consumers.
Yelp, for example, has been working with local jurisdictions, including Los Angeles County, to post health letter grades on its restaurant pages.
So although the association typically advocates for a broad pass-fail system, she said, its priorities have shifted toward "making sure restaurants get a fair shake" and diners are presented with the most up-to-date information possible.
Jenny Ross, owner and executive chef of 118 Degrees, a vegan restaurant near South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa that specializes in raw cooking, said Orange County residents in particular are "starting to ask more questions" about the way their food is prepared.
Offering more information, she said, "is how an industry evolves and becomes better."
Still, overly specific data about an inspection can be tough for the average eater to decipher, Pappas said, which means that there's a place for some "analog" aspects of any inspection system.
On Friday afternoon, as a lunch crowd of young moms, local office workers and well-coiffed twenty-somethings meandered through the sun-drenched courtyard of the SoCo Collection, a hip shopping center in Costa Mesa, Ace Aldana, 44, paused after meeting a friend at the center's upscale Seventh Tea Bar.
He said the absence of the blocky blue letters in Orange County's restaurant windows had never really registered and added that a color-coded system seemed intuitive.
"We're all familiar with those colors and what they symbolize," the Irvine-based attorney said, adding that a yellow placard might give him pause.
Karly Cable and Drew Mattocks, both 20-year-old Biola University students, said they consult Yelp before they go out, but if they happen to notice a rating placard when they get to a restaurant, it might affect their decision to eat there.
Cable, who sported a chambray shirt and sipped an iced coffee from nearby Portola Coffee, said the color coded system might gloss over subtleties.
"I feel like a 'B' is still pretty good," she said. "Whereas I feel like seeing a yellow, I'd be like, 'Eh.'"