I've found many a great eatery by serendipity -- a place I've passed that looked intriguing and turned out to be a fantastic find. Other times, oh, that doesn't work out quite so well. Research via personal recommendations (friends, family, B&B owners) and guidebooks has long been augmented by Web-based review sites such as Trip Advisor and Yelp as well as guidebook/Web hybrids like Zagat.
Crowd-sourced reviews have their own issues, such as fake reviewers trying to game the system -- either talking up their own establishments or trashing a competitor -- and even some sites themselves giving too much power to advertisers to control what appears. But for the times when you want to do some research before dining while seeking a new place for a nice meal, whether at home or on the road, they've got their place.
The App Store currently has several hundred restaurant apps for iPad. Here's a look at several of the best-known downloads. All are free except for Zagat.
I'm a fan of the Zagat restaurant guides because their editors do much of the work I would otherwise have to do -- reading through dozens of user reviews. In just a few sentences, they pick out the trends, both positive and negative, for each place. And this is important, since rating stars alone don't tell the whole story. Perhaps an angry parent down-rated a place because their noisy toddler was unwelcome, when that could be a big plus for couples looking for a quiet romantic spot.
That could also be a drawback, though, if you're the kind of person who likes to draw your own conclusions based on lots of raw info.
This $9.99 app gives a year's access to Zagat restaurant ratings around the world, compared with $10.85 for a single-city paperback guide (Amazon price; the list is $15.95).
The app is extremely well designed and the most enjoyable to use of all the apps I tried. After searching by metro area, you can refine your query by neighborhood, cuisine and cost as well as rating -- and the ratings search is broken down by scores for food, ambiance and service. Or, you can just look at various top-rated lists per metro area.
You can view listings either on a map or in a view that mimics the look and function of the guidebook (including swiping from one listing to the next). Detailed listings include Web site link, email and ability to save to contacts.
Pros: Great design; useful content; time-saving brief synopses; excellent search.
Cons: Coverage is largely limited to major urban areas and some nearby tourist areas; you may not find little-known neighborhood joints; there's only a brief writeup of each place; long-time app users complain that prior functionality (shopping, nightlife) has been removed; higher-than-average cost.
Bottom line: Yes, this is a pricey app when compared to most of the (free) competition. However, there are times when you get what you pay for. If you like Zagat guidebooks, chances are you'll love the iPad app -- and it's a great deal compared with the books.
Rating: 3 out of 4 for content, 4 out of 4 for design.
I've discovered some great places to stay and dine using TripAdvisor's Web site, so I was eager to give the iPad app a try. Alas, the app doesn't do the Web content justice.
You can only search by one cuisine at a time; so if you're in the mood for either Mexican or barbecue, you've got to do two separate queries (the Web site lets you check multiple food types).
Another major shortfall of the app vs the Web site is that you can't see any details about the reviewers. On the Web site, I often look to see how many reviews someone's written -- a glowing review by someone who's penned dozens of entries, some of them critical, carries more weight with me than someone who's written just one or two. In the app, you just see the reviewers' screen name; there's no way to click through to see more about them. That's really a surprise given that the Web site prominently touts how many reviews and helpful votes each reviewer has garnered.
Most annoying: I can't find a way to close the map portion of the display, even when looking at a specific listing's reviews. That means review text only fills a narrow fraction of the screen, even in landscape mode.
The app's links to place-specific TripAdvisor forums may be useful if you're planning a trip in advance, although obviously less so if it's 6 pm and you're trying to find a spot for dinner.
Pros: Lots of potentially helpful reviews; geographic focus is helpful for travelers; "reserve" links when available send you right to a reservation request on Open Table.
Cons: Poor page layout, limited info on reviewers, limited search.
Bottom line: Despite the disappointing design, the app still does offer access to numerous helpful reviews as well as some photos. But for now, the app is not as useful as the Web site.
Rating: 3 out of 4 for content, 2 out of 4 for design
Yelp's app looks aimed less at foodies and more for geolocation: There are filters for distance and neighborhood as well as cost and "open now," but none for cuisine. It turns out you can search by food category as well, but you've got to type free-form text in the search box if you want to, say, find a seafood restaurant. Once you start typing, category options show up, but you'd need to know to start typing "Asian" for "Asian fusion" to pop up and not "Pan" hoping to see "Pan Asian."
Initially, Yelp has much the same look as TripAdvisor, with search results in a narrow left column and a map on the right. Unlike TripAdvisor, though, the map is replaced with a full review and info screen when you tap to read about a specific restaurant -- a design that makes more sense than TripAdvisor's.
Full restaurant listings include checklists for features such as delivery, takeout, outdoor seating, good for kids and wheelchair accessibility. There are also prominent "get directions" and "bookmark" links. I especially like the "Closed Now" warning on listings -- not helpful if you're planning a vacation trip, but very much so if you're out looking for lunch.
Pros: Helpful when on the road, ability to easily see other reviews by each reviewer, prominent and easy-to-view user photos of the restaurants.
Cons: Searching by food type is more difficult than necessary. Design is functional but not fun. And I still take the content with an extra grain of salt after the flap about advertisers being allowed to select the first review listed on the site (although Yelp said that's been changed).
Bottom line: While I don't find this app especially visually compelling or fun to use, it's certainly serviceable.
Rating: 3 out of 4 for design, 2.5 out of 4 for content
Others of possible interest
OpenTable is a nice app if you happen to want to make an online reservation while mobile. However, I wouldn't recommend it to search for a place to eat, since too many great restaurants won't show up simply because they don't do business with OpenTable for online reservations.
LocalEats bills itself as profiling "only the best restaurants in the world," selected from "opinions of critics and local media, trusted friends, site visitors, and bloggers." Even moreso than Zagat, it's pretty much confined to major cities.
The app contains some useful info for international destinations, such as on "essential eats" and local tipping etiquette. All city destinations include links to Wikipedia listings as well as weather info. Each city also has a lovely photo, which I'd enjoy more if it didn't start off in motion while I was trying to read.
LocalEats is not a comprehensive restaurant list, nor does it pretend to be. Search beyond geography is limited to price, food type, neighborhood and whether it's breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner or late night. While I wouldn't suggest this for your sole restaurant-finding app, it's a nice supplement if you're looking for a good, non-chain-food meal -- whether while traveling or just seeking to shake-up an at-home restaurant rut.
This story, "iPad Restaurant App Reviews" was originally published by Computerworld.