Paul Szelc was in Columbus, Ohio, not long ago - he travels frequently for his job as a college basketball official - and was in the mood for a burger.
So he turned to the Urbanspoon application on his iPhone and found Thurman Café.
Although he might have found the restaurant another way, a user review of the place mentioned that diners needn't worry about the long lines stretching out the door - the restaurant turns tables quickly, and single diners often can find a seat at the bar.
"Had I driven up to it without reading that review, I probably would have said, 'I don't want to wait all day,'?" the Wauwatosa man said. Instead, he got in line and presently was sitting down to the burger he'd been craving.
Apps for Apple's iPhone and other smart phones are helping users in all sorts of realms; they're helping diners select restaurants, navigate their way to them, pick a sure thing from the menu and calculate the tip, too.
Of course, other avenues exist for finding the information, though none as handy as having all the resources with you as you're walking down the street, phone in hand.
Users say the apps aren't perfect but are a big help nonetheless.
For example, Szelc noted that he uses the free Urbanspoon app in tandem with Zagat to Go - at $9.99, one of the priciest dining apps. Casual places such as burger and pizza joints are more prevalent on Urbanspoon, but if he's looking for someplace more upscale - like the Italian restaurant he recently visited in Detroit - he turns to Zagat to Go.
From the same people who produce the Zagat guides, this app includes useful categories, ranking restaurants by food, cost or decor. Szelc said he's less likely to trust the Urbanspoon rankings, turning a skeptical eye on something like a "most romantic restaurant" rating for Olive Garden.
Another caveat with Urbanspoon that Szelc noted: A glowing review could just as easily have come from a restaurant owner or employee, whereas Zagat ratings come strictly from diners before being compiled into an aggregate score.
Apps that help find a restaurant are most valuable when he's traveling, Szelc said, although he'll use them locally to retrieve a restaurant's phone number or menu. And he did try the applications first in town, where he knows the restaurant landscape, to see whether he could trust the recommendations.
A last-minute victory
Andrea Avery, gallery manager and curator for the Union Art Gallery at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a graduate student at the Peck School of the Arts there, relies on iWant - which combines Yelp and Urbanspoon restaurant reviews with nearby movie showtimes and Yellow Pages - and OpenTable apps.
In town, she mainly uses the apps to provide visiting artists with restaurant options. Traveling, though, is when they really pay off.
Last year, when she went to New York for restaurant week, she was able to score last-minute, hard-to-get reservations at the vaunted WD-50 through OpenTable.
"It turned out to be an unforgettable time, and we were invited to take a kitchen/lab tour," she said. There, she met chef-owner Wylie Dufresne and his pastry chef, Alex Stupak.
Apps have their limitations and frustrations. Avery's annoyances with the restaurant finders mainly have been with bad directions and closed restaurants.
Another downside: Mom and pop places might not be included on an app, leading diners to overlook some treasures, Avery noted.
And relying on apps does remove the human element. "There is pride in finding a gem on your own or getting a suggestion from a local about 'that one' amazing dish you 'have to try' at some place that is off the beaten path," she said.
And, of course, the apps aren't effective everywhere. Traveling in Asia recently, Avery found her favorite meals at street markets and in private homes where she was invited, not in restaurants.
That bubble is an eatery
Some apps offer more than just reviews, hours and addresses. A couple let diners find a place to eat through the lenses of their smart phones using a technology called augmented reality.
Augmented reality blends real and virtual information in real time, often combining computerized content with a live video feed. The augmented-reality features in Yelp and Zagat to Go turn the iPhone's camera, with help from its GPS, into a digital viewfinder that highlights restaurants with bubbles appearing in the direction of nearby places to eat. Pan the phone around to find bubbles and then tap a bubble for all the basics, including reviews and ratings.
The technology is useful when exploring unfamiliar territory, according to Michael Massie, an iPhone app developer in Milwaukee who has used dining apps including Urbanspoon, Yelp and Zagat to Go.
Massie started his dining app testing long ago with Urbanspoon - among the first dining apps on the market - but found its suggestions repetitive. Yelp is sometimes useful, he said, although he takes issue with some of the reviews.
"Urbanspoon kind of always gave you the same places," he said. "Yelp I like, but I am getting a bitter taste in my mouth about it because it's written by users. They will get on their soapbox and give a place one star because someone next to them was too loud. I am not sure how big a fan I am of the public review process. I don't give them a lot of weight."
Zagat, however, has all the polish of the professional publication in addition to the augmented-reality technology, which it calls Retina.
"I do like Zagat very much," said Massie, a frequent business traveler. "Its content is so much better."
Massie noted that Foursquare, the social media app that lets friends share their whereabouts by "checking in" to different venues, is also a useful tool for dining because people can leave suggestions. And since those suggestions are from people he knows, they mean more to him than a rant from a stranger.
"I think there is more potential there because .?.?.?people you follow on Twitter or Foursquare, those I will appreciate more because we at least share some similarities and interests."
Massie noted that Foursquare also suggests discounts at nearby bars and restaurants, offering another incentive for trying new places or revisiting favorites.
"I wish more dining apps integrated that, because it really adds value," Massie said.
A better app
Fred Gillich, another iPhone app developer in Milwaukee, said there is still plenty of room for dining apps to improve. He'd want a dining app giving restaurateurs more control over the content, allowing them to post updated menus, discounts and special events.
"I would love to see a resource compiled where restaurants could upload and generate their own content," he said.
Restaurants could better promote their philosophies - such as using organic foods or free-range meats - or give potential customers advice on when to avoid the bar crowd or other factors that can affect the dining experience.
Current iPhone apps are fine as a starting point in a new city, he said, but are only really useful to him when he's not in Milwaukee.
"One of my favorite things is food," Gillich said. "If a new restaurant is opening in town or I am looking for a place to go here, it's not all that helpful. Generally I am on top of that."
The Journal Sentinel has just launched a smart phone app that, among other things, gives users access to Carol Deptolla's restaurant reviews. Free Apps for iPhone or Droid are available for download.