In this day and age when every other person is a self-described foodie, finding the best mobile application to point you to a taste bud-bending experience requires as much discernment as finding the authentic voice from among throngs of folks who think they know good eats.
I'd be lying if I didn't claim snobby epicurean tendencies, myself.
This headstrong belief in one's own taste credentials is exactly what fuels the need for informative and well-designed food-finding applications. Too simple and a foodie will shun it. Too esoteric and it could alienate a growing segment of people who really care about the art and science of meal-making.
I've recently studied several restaurant-recommending applications for iPhone and other mobile platforms, including Yelp and Urbanspoon for iPhone and Zagat To Go for Windows Mobile, Palm, and BlackBerry, and wondered how relative newcomers Munch ($0.99) and LocalEats ($0.99) compare to these more established services.
There are, of course, things to laud and criticize with each app. Munch's interface has a great method for quick-launching searches for pizza, Mexican, and so on from icons in the screen navigation. You can select other cuisines from a scrolling list. Munch returns wonderfully accurate search results, but is devoid of context. There are no reviews, no Web site listings, and every restaurant we looked at was rated with five empty stars. That's doable if you want a listings app, but for anyone trying to make intelligent choices, it just won't work.
LocalEats fares much better. The app brings you the best 100 (or more) restaurants in 50 U.S. cities as determined by a team of foodie professionals, authors of the online dining guide Where the locals eat. The benefit is that unlike Urbanspoon, no national chain even thinks of making an appearance. You can search each city's highest-rated establishments by alphabetical order, cuisine type, or the best of each category. For larger cities you can also search by neighborhood.
Each restaurant listing shows the location details, price range, and amenities. You can tap outbound links to open Google driving directions, place a call, or open the Web site in Safari. A good start, but if you're browsing, the application is still shy on context. There is a one-out-of-five rating, but no reviews or summaries that diners can employ to break a tie, and the price range should be listed on the thumbnail entries you see before tapping in to the details page. It's fair to manage the expectations of the avid eater--many of the "best" restaurants are also the priciest. I've also come to appreciate in-app browsers like Urbanspoon's, which allow you to return to search listings after plotting the restaurant's location, and now I think every good application should have one. As it stands, every time you view a Web site or map, you'll have to reopen LocalEats and navigate back to the restaurant detail page to do anything else.
My own snobbish ways made me question some of the "best of" choices enough to ask for the LocalEats team's credentials. Why should I or anyone else trust their judgment above the thousands of eaters who frequent Yelp.com or Urbanspoon.com? Though LocalEats' editorial team is topped by a food writer and chef, LocalEats also leans on alternative weeklies, restaurant surveys like Zagat, and reader opinions to keep people fed in all 50 cities. That would explain why a few specific results seem more like the crowd-pleasing winners of local contests rather than true finds.
What this does more than anything is open the debate on methodology. There's an application's functionality and design, but what makes a foodie's favorite restaurant-finder may also come down to approach. Guesstimating by the masses a la Yelp is tricky when you're unsure if your (excellent) taste in food matches everyone else's (questionable) taste. A four-star average from 200 reviewers is heartening, but disappointment can nevertheless ensue. We've all been there.
Then there's Urbanspoon's tactic of mitigating eaters' votes on restaurants with links out to critics' reviews, which the snooty diner in me finds readily acceptable. I'm also partial to Zagat's summaries of witty user reviews because they let diners match multifaceted preferences to the restaurant's food and personality. Unfortunately, the only way to currently get to Zagat from the iPhone is by surfing to zagat.mobi on Safari.
No iPhone app stands out now as the undisputed best, but for my dining discovery habits, Urbanspoon and Yelp still give serious eaters the most information to chew on. The attractive-looking and right-minded LocalEats could use a boost, but isn't all that far behind.