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tan Publicizing a trip to the john

By Richard Chin

Knight Ridder Newspapers

It's lunchtime, and we're crowded into the men's bathroom at Fhima's restaurant in downtown St. Paul with Jon and Ami Thompson.

It's spotless, the Thompsons note approvingly.

The actual toilet is housed in a separate little room with a real door, they point out. A nice touch for the privacy-minded. They praise the rectangular mirrors over the sinks that tilt forward to give an expansive view of the room. They declare that the round swiveling vanity mirrors installed next to the sinks are "very metrosexual."

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They try the hand soap, count the garbage cans, ponder whether the lighting is flattering and snap some photographs. Ami ducks out to check the women's room, returning to report that, though there's hairspray and lotion there, it lacks the orange-red panel of light running along a wall of the men's room.

"We have some gender inequity," she frowns. "For me, that's a big no-no."

It's not a health inspection or a restaurant review. It's a bathroom review.

The Thompsons are creators of www.restroomratings.com, a Web site devoted to publishing evaluations of public toilets.

The Minneapolis couple said their quest to promote better bathrooms and started about 31⁄2; years ago.

"I was complaining on a car trip how you never know what the bathroom will be like," Ami, 23, said.

Jon's answer was to create the Web site as a surprise Christmas 2000 present for his wife. He initially had ratings of five bathrooms. Now, there are about 75 online reviews.

The bulk of the reviews are done at restaurants, ranging from the fancy schmancy ("Gratuitously large stalls appear as a tribute to the dining atmosphere, which seems open and airy without feeling empty and lonely." -- Pazzaluna) to fast-food joints ("I marveled at the sturdy and satisfying door lock." -- Taco Bell).

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But you'll also find evaluations of the powder rooms of gas stations, the trough urinals in sports stadiums and the WCs in theaters, museums, office buildings, hospitals, libraries, malls and tourist attractions. The Thompsons are the "head inspectors."

Besides a written description and usually a photograph, each bathroom review also features a score ranging from 1 (really bad can) to 10 (a great lavatory).

As you'll suspect, cleanliness is important.

"Having a (piece of excrement sitting on the toilet rim) is probably not a good idea if your restroom is going to be reviewed that day," said Jon, 23, of a Holiday gas station bathroom in St. Paul that rated a 2.

"Excrement should be in the toilet," Ami agrees.

But cleanliness isn't everything. The Thompsons also like to see the unique, the aesthetically pleasing, something that elevates the privy experience.

"If you have just a clean, boring bathroom, you won't get a very high score," Ami said.

But a somewhat messy bathroom might rank well if it distinguishes itself in some other way, like being interesting or well integrated with the theme of the restaurant.

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"It's possible. It depends on what kind of mood we're in," Jon said.

Pretty much every aspect of public latrine design is fair game for commentary: size, color scheme, lighting and fixtures, vending machines, noise, soap, toilet-paper quality, odor, graffiti, visible presence of plungers or cleaning supplies.

"Trough urinals automatically step you down about five points," Jon said.

There are also demerits for those rolling fabric hand towel machines, according to Ami. She likes warm-air hand dryers. And she liked an electric, automatic paper towel dispenser she encountered in an otherwise grungy Citgo in Mequon, Wis.

Toilet function is important. She worries about ones that threaten to overflow or are fussy to operate.

"I don't like the jet engine (flushers), especially the automatic ones, because sometimes they go off when you're on them, and they spray you," she said. She also thinks powerful flushers spew germs.

"You like the jet engines," she said to her husband.

"Because you know it's going down," he replies.

"I don't like bar soap," she said.

"Bar soap is bad," he said.

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