Richardson Browne runs a little saloon that is midway between homey and swank style-wise and serves food that is healthy without being preachy about the fact. Located in a strip mall at Bethany Home Road and 16th Street, Richardson's Hen House qualifies as a neighborhood hangout for citizens from central Phoenix to Paradise Valley.

Day or night, the large U-shaped bar can be found giving refuge to, or at least propping up, a diverse collection of characters looking to hide out from mates, mortgage bankers or the disappointments of life in general.

Since opening in May 1988, Richardson's has attracted a steady stream of luminaries, as well. A few months ago, Browne gamely hosted a fund raiser for Terry Goddard, former Phoenix mayor and candidate for governor. Another night the crowd included actor Robert Mitchum; the Grand Prix drivers have been known to do their drinking there, too.

Were someone to roll a Molotov cocktail through the front door, the collateral damage likely would include a random assortment of local young glitterati.

However, Richardson's patrons may have faced a more immediate danger--at least in the view of county health inspectors.

The real threat, as the county sees it, is from restaurant death cooties, those microscopic millions massing to swarm up from the unclean drain or unwashed dish and over the food being hustled so promptly to waiting diners.

Following several inspections prompted by complaints, Richardson's is accused by the Maricopa County Health Department of committing "serious and repeated" health-code violations. The cafe is still open, but only because Browne has signed a legal agreement promising to pass all surprise inspections through July, or accept immediate loss of his license with no appeal.

Browne and the county have been feuding for months, although things seem to have quieted down recently.

"I've been working for three years to get this restaurant up and running," Richardson Browne says. "I've got $100,000 invested here and it's everything I've got. There isn't a family fortune back there somewhere. Do you think I'm going to do anything to jeopardize that?" His voice carries a rasp of annoyance, as if his recent tribulations with the county health department are about to overcome his patience.

In fact, Browne's patience did give way during an encounter earlier this year with county health inspector Joan Minichiello and her supervisor, Tom Waldbillig. "Were they easy to deal with?" Browne recalls. "Hunh! The supervisor was such a jerk I ended up throwing him out."

"We are not trying to harass anybody, although Mr. Browne thinks we are," says Mousa Pirouznia, administrative supervising sanitarian for the north-side region of the department's Bureau of Environmental Health. "All of our rules are intended to protect people's health, and we are merely enforcing them as fairly as possible."

Browne acknowledges that the county thought it had an attitude problem on its hands. "They thought I wasn't taking them seriously, there's no question about it, but I really do care," Browne says. "We're just really different people. Tom looks at me and thinks I'm halfway out the door to the beach with three margaritas and don't give a shit. I look at him and think he's a nerd."

Nerdy or not, the county has the upper hand in these matters. In the end, all that remained was for Browne to bring his heels together smartly and salute.

The county inspectors maintain they now recognize that Browne, despite a marked, and perhaps unfortunate, physical resemblance to Jimmy Buffett, takes their concerns seriously. "That's why we gave him a passing score on the [May] inspection," Pirouznia says. "We recognize he is trying now."

Back in December, it was the situation that was trying. That month, the county health department instituted legal proceedings to revoke Richardson's operating license.

"The pattern here has been hills and valleys," says Pirouznia, speaking briefly during a recent inspection of Richardson's, in which he accompanied inspector Waldbillig. "And for a while there, it was getting to be mostly valleys." At first, Browne usually managed to score a passing number. Anything below 90 (out of 100) means a "flunk." A flunk means a quick follow-up inspection to make sure the violations have been corrected, and no new ones committed in the meantime, and who-knows-how-much additional surveillance in the future. Repeated flunks are likely to bring the threat of license revocation and visits by not one but two county health inspectors at a time. It is a headache most restaurant owners try to avoid.

In Richardson's case, the pace of enforcement really began to pick up with the assignment of a new inspector, Joan Minichiello, early in 1990. In short order, both Richardson's and its next-door neighbor, the Mediterranean House restaurant, felt the lash of the county's regulatory whip.

In April 1990, Minichiello flunked Richardson's for such infractions as not soaking the bar towels in chlorine solution between wipe-ups and unmended holes in the wall. In the same month, the Mediterranean House also received a failing grade from Minichiello, its first in more than two years.

From that point, however, there was a marked difference in how matters unfolded at the two eateries. The owners of the Mediterranean House had their place looking spiffy by the time Minichiello did a reinspection in May 1990, earning a passing grade. Mediterranean House has been inspected only twice since then, failing once but correcting all violations by the time Minichiello did a reinspection.

Suki Hairston and Toni Prall, owners of the Mediterranean House, say Minichiello is firm, but fair and reasonable. "She's very fair and she gave us a reasonable amount of time to correct the violations," Prall says. "We are pleased with her."

Richardson's, however, is a different story. The cafe has been inspected eight times in the past year, and scored below 90 in all but two instances.

In the microbiology department, Richardson's was cited once last year for "thawing a case of frozen chicken in the hand/mop sink." An inspector also found lipstick on washed glasses on three successive occasions.

Three of the inspections were prompted by anonymous complaints concerning a leaking water meter and "roaches, roaches and more roaches." (No roaches were found when the county investigated, and it was the city's water meter.)

"I have no real idea who's making the complaints," Browne says. "There're always situations where ex-employees are pissed. It's taken me two and a half years to get a staff together who sees it my way, and I do have standards that I require to be met. It's led to a couple of terminations."

Minichiello and Waldbillig began recommending license revocation last November. In May 1991, however, Waldbillig gave the cafe a 91 score. Pirouznia, present at that May inspection, says Richardson's still is on pretty thin ice. "If we wanted to go black is black, white is white, it wouldn't be a 91," he says. "It would be more like a 65."

Health inspection is more than just that numbers game, according to veteran inspector Wendy Lea, who has a master's degree in public health education and more than a decade of experience in the field. She says close to 95 percent of violations can be resolved through "informal pressure," by appealing to a restaurateur's conscience. "`How would you want to be treated?' I ask them," she says.

In cases where conflict does arise, the restaurateur may be thinking efficiency, but the inspector must think microbes. "Everything in the health code is intended to eliminate the opportunity for germs to breed," Lea explains. Pathogens come in countless varieties--strep, staph, hepatitis, you name it, she says.

Inspectors, on the other hand, tend to come in two styles--"education oriented" and "enforcement oriented," Lea acknowledges.

With each inspection of Richardson's, inspector Minichiello's notes moved further away from the positive-reinforcement approach and became more direct. By January, when Browne came eyeball-to-eyeball with Waldbillig, the inspector's comments carried the bold, slashing tone of a field marshal's directive.

Now that the situation has calmed down, Browne no longer angrily accuses the county of harassment. "They don't see me working seven days a week," Browne says. "I'm just trying to run a first-class joint."

"They thought I wasn't taking them seriously, there's no question about it, but I really do care," Browne says.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kathleen Stanton