iPad Apps: Best App for Finding a Restaurant

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Q: I'm an iPad owner that is overwhelmed by the number of applications available. Where should I start if I'm looking for a way to find the best restaurants in my neighborhood?

ScreenHunter_03-Apr.-27-21.59.jpgURBANSPOON FOR IPAD

Free | Version: 1.1 | Urbanspoon

Ten million downloads ago, Urbanspoon began its quest to add slot-machine-style fun to the chore of restaurant picking: click Spin and it randomly rung up a reco for you. The service started on the iPhone, where its popularity exploded (you could shake to spin ... neat). Now's your chance to whirl the famous wheel on the big screen. Truth is, the fancy finding mechanism is only a small part of what makes this app a winner. It's really the huge database of listings this service now draws from that makes it a useful tool. About 800,000 restaurants are covered and not just in big cities: from Altoona, Pennsylvania to Zeeland, Michigan, good eats await.

SPIN-FREE ZONE: The red Spin button is so darn compelling, it's hard not to tap. But other methods work, and many of 'em are better suited for those with an inkling of what they want to eat and where. The lock icons are the key. Manually scroll your way through one or more of the neighborhood, cuisine, and price columns; tap and hold the lock till it lights up. You've just told the app to find, say, ultra-cheap Italian restaurants in Grosse Pointe.

TIME TO TWIRL: You can also enlist Mr. Spin's help once you've narrowed down your options. Set the golden locks on, say, location and price, and then, when you tap Spin, the app auto-flicks just the cuisine wheel. Spin again, of course, for another suggestion. The map's Show Popular button is helpful, too, especially if you're viewing a neighborhood stuffed with blue restaurant pins. When tapped, this button thins out the herd.

TRAVEL TIME: You can have the app use the iPad's location-finding skills to sniff out your current whereabouts, or pick a destination yourself from the "Choose a city" window if you're planning a trip. You'll see about 50 major cities listed, but don't forget that's just the top of the pancake stack. Enter any city or town's name and chances are you'll find at least a few blue pins.

THE ENTREE: Your main course awaits once you actually tap a restaurant's name. A quick finger on any blue pin gets you key stats like contact info and the percentage of reviewers who liked the joint. Tap the "view details" option for the full story: a web page loaded with the works: a menu, a map, restaurant reviews, blog posts that mention the eatery, and a chance to pen your own.

HONORABLE MENTION: ZAGAT TO GO

$9.99 | Version: 4.0.2 | Zagat Survey

Long before "crowdsourcing" became every firm's favorite manufacturing method, Zagat people powered their famous red books. Everything you know about the guides is here: ratings in four categories (food, decor, service, and cost), contact info, and terse and to-the-point reviews. About 40 cities are covered (mainly the U.S. biggies, but also some international hotspots like London and Paris). The app also gives you the company's coverage of nightlife, hotels, and shopping. Flip a switch in the Settings menu and download for offline viewing the whole honking 100 MB collection. Perfect for that flight to L.A. Just remember to do the deed before takeoff.

VISUAL BROWSING: Map mode helps eyeball the neighborhood you're headed to -- great for spotting which restaurants are within range. Compare that to those typically frustrating web searches for, say, "Harlem restaurants"; here you simply pan and zoom to where you want to visit and in an instant you see red Z's pop up.

THIS NOT THAT: All the search categories you'd expect are here, including finicky filters ranging from Children Not Recommended to Crayons & Games Available. On the downside: coverage doesn't quite measure up to other apps, not to mention what's out there in the real world. (Three Italian restaurants in all of Brooklyn? Yougottabekiddinme.)

BOOK MARK: Book mode replicates the classic print edition layout. Tap any of the gray page-top tabs (food, decor) to sort what appears according to that criterion. Since you're often viewing multiple pages' worth of listings, and there's no simple way to flip through the pages other than one at a time, here's a tip: swipe right on the first page and you'll cycle back to the last page.

DETAILS, DETAILS: Each review page lists, of course, location, contact info, and ratings. (Tap the "i" for a refresher on the service's opaque number scale: it runs from 0 to 30, with a few letters thrown in for cost info when price data's not available.) You'll also usually find built-in links to OpenTable's reservation maker, and menus. The map is live: pinch to zoom out for a bird's-eye view.

HONORABLE MENTION: SPEAK4IT

Free | Version: 2.3 | Yellowpages.com

Warning: after using this app you may never want to search the "old" way -- by zipcode, restaurant name, or category listing -- again. The novel idea here is actually a joint venture between your iPad's voice recognition capabilities and your own ability to finger paint across the area you want to search. You simply sketch a line around where you want to hunt, speak your request (no special mic necessary), and voila: the telltale red pins appear. Perfect for those times when you wanna meet for a drink near that building that's across from that park. No problem: sketch, speak, done.

SEARCH BETTER: You can enter what you're looking for the ol' fashioned way (tap the search oval, enter your query), but where's the fun in that? Recite your request instead. Start by tapping either of the microphone icons; when the recording panel appears at top, trace whatever boundaries you like: could be a straight line down Main Street, a circle around campus, whatever.

HEARING TEST: The app's a good listener. Of course it can handle basics (pizza, sushi), but even slightly off locutions (peruvian greenwich connecticut) it nails. Nice. You can also tap the address book icon in the search oval to reissue previous requests or save faves for one-tap access.

Tools mentioned in this entry:

More questions? View the complete Toolkit archive.

Excerpted from Peter Meyers' Best iPad Apps: The Guide for Discriminating Downloaders. Copyright 2010 O'Reilly Media, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Read more Atlantic Technology Channel book excerpts.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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