Which fish dish? TopDish, Spork have advice

SAN FRANCISCO--With the restaurant rating and recommendation business being pretty well locked up (by Yelp, OpenTable, Foursquare, etc.), the new game in town is apparently recommendations on individual dishes. Got a hankering for tom kha gai soup? You can check out Spork (live) or TopDish (invite-only beta) to find the best restaurant nearby that serves that particular dish; both companies are presenting in the low-rent "launch pad" sideshow of the Launch conference here.

These two services collect user reviews--ratings and pictures--of dishes to help you make the life-critical decision of where to find the best of whatever you're looking for, or if you're sitting at a restaurant, which dish to order. Both sites let you profile your tastes to help decide for you what you're more likely to like.

Spork is a bit more social at the moment. It connects to your Facebook network to prioritize food ratings from your friends. An upcoming feature will let you gift a dish to a friend via a PayPal credit for the cost of the dish. A future network update may work the credit through restaurants directly.

Co-founder Dan Cheung told me he's also considering adding a "reverse Groupon" feature to the service: If enough users like a restaurant's dish, Spork may ask the restaurant to create a coupon for it, to stimulate demand just a little bit more.

TopDish is a bit newer, still in closed beta. Its recommendations are network-wide, for the time being, and the mobile app isn't out yet. The model is largely the same as Spork's, but co-founder Salil Pandit told me his service's secret sauce will be communication with restaurants: If you run an eatery, you'll be able to see how all your individual dishes rate. This will be a free service for a while, although the value to a restaurant could obviously be quite high. "We just want to help start a conversation," Pandit told me.

The increasing granularity of data in new Web services is an important trend to watch. Highly-specific recommendation databases don't work unless there's enough volume of users and data feeding into them. Without that, you get a lot of empty records and unsatisfied users. But with everyone getting with the program of recommending things to friends, checking in, and Tweeting or Facebooking their every move, it's not surprising that companies like these (and some others, launching tomorrow at this conference) are tying to make sense of these little tidbits of opinion.

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For better service, automate the waiters

It seems like everyone wants a piece of the restaurant industry. I don't know why. It's a brutal business with low margins, high employee turnover, no way to reach all your customers at once, and generally stressed-out business owners. At least existing inefficiencies make for creative solutions and some good start-up ideas. OpenTable proved that you can improve the simple act of booking a table. Grubhub is trying to bring the same concept to deliveries and takeout. And now Storific is trying to streamline the function of the waiter.

Storific turns your iPhone (other platforms in development) into an order-taking waitbot. You step into your restaurant and as you're seated you get a code for your table. You put that into the app, and then you can see the establishment's menu on your phone, pick things you want, and have those orders delivered to the kitchen. You can also ping the system to send over water, a salt shaker, and so on.

It may appear that this business is about making things better for diners, by making it easier to send orders in. It may also look like it's good for waiters since it makes them more efficient (they can come by to chat up customers and don't have to come back to take an order unless the diner wants that) and thus could improve their tips. But the real benefit of this app is bottom-line financial. It brings impulse buying to restaurant dining. Want another order of fries? Press the button. A second mousse, rapidement? Click.… Read more

Five last-minute gifts you can print at home

My undying thanks to everyone who wrote and commented with such kind words yesterday. I was really flabbergasted by the show of support, and I appreciate the reminder that Cheapskate readers are the coolest, kindest folks on the planet.

This is an update of a post I did last year around this time.

Well, here we are, just one week to go until the ho-ho-holiday. If you're a procrastinator like me, you might be scrambling to find a last-minute gift for, say, your trusty mail carrier, the kids' schoolteacher, or the office Secret Santa party.

No problem: all you … Read more

Find nearby deals with the Entertainment Book Companion

As a bona fide cheapskate (and author of the eponymous blog), I'm a longtime fan of the Entertainment Book. For about $30 (a little more in some states), it provides substantial discounts for thousands of local stores, attractions, restaurants, movie theaters, and the like.

In my experience, the book pays for itself within a month or two, then offers additional savings (often major savings) throughout the rest of the year. Killer deal.

Just one problem: a lot of coupons go to waste because we don't know where the deals are. We might be out and about, looking for … Read more

Bizzy has custom restaurant recommendations

Looking for a restaurant tonight? Start-up Bizzy says you cannot trust your friends, who have different tastes than you. Nor Google or Yelp, which are far too generic. Bizzy's better recommendation engine, CEO Gadi Shamia says, does a Netflix on your tastes, You tell it what you like, and it finds other places you're also likely to appreciate based on hidden signals in your data.

For example, if you like loud restaurants over quiet ones, or if your top criteria for a dining establishment is the attractiveness of the waitstaff, the Bizzy engine will return results that work … Read more

The high-tech tools of Keller's kitchens

NEW YORK--I'm standing in the middle of America's foodie mecca, and I've found a smoking gun that helps explains its incredible success.

I mean that literally.

This is the kitchen of world-class chef Thomas Keller's Per Se, his Michelin three-star restaurant located on Columbus Circle, and the smoke is flowing freely, rapidly filling up a plastic container and helping to give the cream inside some additional flavor.

I mentioned this was the Smoking Gun, a culinary tool from PolyScience, right?

I've come here to Per Se because a friend told me he'd had a … Read more

Techie NYC eatery takes orders on iPads

London has the Flash-based, Bluetooth-ordering Inamo restaurant, Germany, the waiter-less kitchen. Japan has ramen vending machines, and soon, New York's midtown will play host to a restaurant with a 240-square-foot screen, displaying tweets and Foursquare check-ins.

Not to mention customers can customize their orders, add them to the social-networking site, and if other people order those creations, the originators will be paid 25 cents for every order. The money can be saved up and redeemed on future purchases, making it a loyalty scheme with a difference.

As you can garner in the photos, the renderings make the … Read more

Online dating finally recognized by restaurant guide

Online dating is, like a lack of privacy, merely the new social norm, right?

It seems to have been around almost as long as Rohypnol and cell phones. It's just a blind date with someone whom you don't know and neither do any of your friends. What could be the problem?

Which is why, perhaps, all those guidebooks you tend to see in bookstores might separate restaurant listings under sections like "romantic" or "first date," but I've never seen one have a separate section for "online dating."

San Francisco Bay Area … Read more

Foodie heaven (for some)

Zagat's iPhone app has most of the ingredients for making a great restaurant and nightspot ratings application for the iPhone--venerable content taken straight from the Zagat Survey, a phone number you can tap to initiate a call, a Web site link, OpenTable reservations and photos when available, plus filters for searching by category and sorting results by ratings criteria. The app is far more handsome than it used to be, and though sometimes slow, cleverly covers the time it takes to load content between screens with "outtakes," often cutting or sarcastic one-liners taken from user reviews.

An … Read more

Restaurant rate reducer

It's hard enough to make a go of a restaurant by emphasizing things like food, service, and sanitation. Where too many good restaurants fail is not in the kitchen or the dining room but in the office, where costs, inventory, and profit and loss are often left to fend for themselves. Restaurateurs who want to succeed need to pay as close attention to their bottom line as they do their menus. Spreadsheet123's Restaurant Monthly Profit and Loss Statement Template for Excel RPLT 1 isn't too long a title for such a helpful tool. It contains five Excel … Read more