Restaurant horrors make for vivid art exhibit in Detroit

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
Former health inspector Agnes Gira holds a photo of an employee sink with no soap, above a gruesome cocktail of slop on the floor. Her pictures of restaurant horrors are on display at the Scarab Club in Detroit through Feb. 16.

Agnes Gira pointed out there was a mouse in the pizza oven. The guy who owned the restaurant said he couldn't see why that was an issue.

"Well, it's dead," he said. "What are you worried about?"

Gira wrote him up, and she took a picture. An oddly intriguing picture: at first, you can't exactly tell what you're looking at, with the reddish-brown fuzz against the textured grays of the oven floor.

"See all the mouse poop?" Gira asks helpfully. Ah, yes, and that's the beauty of her photo exhibit, hanging at the Scarab Club in Detroit: is it art, or is it two dozen reasons to never eat in a restaurant again?

A fine arts major, Agnes Gira sometimes found an odd beauty in health code violations.

For the record, Gira still dines out, and she has a few tips to help you boldly do the same. Oh, and that pizza joint on Michigan Avenue has closed — and so has the Chinese spot on Livernois she once shut down for having a tattoo parlor in the basement.

Gira, 63, spent 25 devoted years as a health inspector in Detroit. She was also a photographer, "a camera-holic since I was about 6."

The result of those twin passions is on display through Feb. 16 at the historic gallery and gathering place for artists at 217 Farnsworth. Public hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, and the suggested donation is only $2 to $5, mere mouse droppings.

"The Other Dirty Show," the exhibit is called — not dirty as in lust, but rust and dust.

"It sort of pulls together what art is supposed to be about," says MaryAnn Wilkinson, the Scarab Club's executive director. "It's a crossover between art and life."

Much like the human condition, the show is riveting in parts and revolting in others, and here and there it's almost beautiful. Is that a modernized Southwestern landscape, with whites and earth tones and maybe some foothills?

Unfortunately, no. They are mushrooms growing through the floor of a special needs school on the east side.

"That's the one I get touched by the most," Gira says. "They said it was OK because the kids were in wheelchairs and couldn't reach it."

Other health code disasters, she looks back on almost fondly.

A spotlight at the Scarab Club shines on a litter-strewn grease pit, below, and the interior of a pizza oven. There was too much debris in the pit for the grease collector to do his job.

One photo shows a brown paper parcel labeled "Rabbit Kidneys." It's sitting atop three-year-old tubs of frozen pesto, and no, you can't serve those.

But it's the rabbit that made Gira reach for her 35mm Canon. The 90-year-old proprietor of a diner said it was the secret ingredient in her spaghetti sauce, and why wouldn't it be all right? She had dispatched the rabbits herself at her cottage in Canada and brought them across the border in the trunk of her car.

Note to selves: random Canadian rabbits are not acceptable. Likewise, you cannot just dump a pile of enormous beef tongues on the floor. And it's a flawed space-saving strategy to keep a mop, bucket and toxic cleaning supplies next to tomatoes, containers of red sauce and a cart full of pre-made meals ... at a hospital.

It's a point of honor for Gira not to disclose the names of any of the establishments. She does volunteer that the hospital has closed, apparently not a minute too soon.

Retired since 2015, she had started out with the city checking for lead paint, then moved on to inspecting schools, restaurants, hospitals, festivals and vending machines. Along the way, in 2004, she finished a 33-year academic journey by earning a fine arts degree from Wayne State.

Also along the way, Gira annoyed her family at multiple holidays.

"I used to bring a thermometer to Thanksgiving and Christmas," she says. Do not try to serve her stuffing that has spent time inside a bird, and for heaven's sake, Aunt Nancy, you can't thaw frozen turkeys in the bathtub!

"I loved her," Gira says, "but she'd tell me, 'If you don't like it, don't eat it.'"

She has more leeway as a paying customer. A westside Detroiter, she's fond of Duly's Place, a tiny Coney Island on W. Vernor; Taqueria El Ray, 1 ½ blocks east; and Mudgie's, the Corktown deli.

Her inner inspector also admires the Detroit Athletic Club, even if she's never eaten there, because it was always particularly clean and cooperative.

As a diner, she says, she'll look at the restroom even before she looks at the menu. If a public area is grimy or smells odd, imagine what the customers can't see. One of the photos in her show could have been titled Still Life with Germs: a bar on Michigan Avenue stored its double mixer next to the toilet.

In general, she prefers bright lighting and simple menus — the more options, she figures, the more potential for trouble. If she detects a sticky floor, her feet head for the door.

Another expert agrees that little things can portend larger problems.

Jeffrey Gabriel, who says he hopes to see Gira's exhibit this weekend, is one of four master chefs on the culinary arts faculty at Schoolcraft College.

"The first thing I do is look at the staff," he says. "Are they professional? Are they groomed well? Are the shoes clean?"

Then he'll scan the dining room. Is it clean and neat? Is there food stuck on the silverware?

"If they're not watching that stuff," he says, "who knows what's going on in the back."

Inspection reports are typically available on county health department websites, which gets back to Gira and her former life.

"I just loved my job," she says. "People don't think about it, but they should thank their inspector."

And, at least this once, their artist.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn