Welcome, foodies and drinkers alike, to our latest edition of iPhone Gems. As you may already know, we’ve previously covered tip calculators, drink recipe apps, and even an application to order take-out from Chipotle, but we’ve never dedicated an entire Gems column to foodie apps. Until now.
Below, we’ve assembled a collection of 14 App Store offerings that come from a variety of food and drink categories—everything from do-it-yourself food preparation tools to restaurant and wine guides. Below, you’ll find options including a massive recipes app, a free shopping list creator, and a guide to local, seasonal food shopping, plus databases of Japanese and Chinese foods, local and international restaurants, two* wine pairing assistants, and even a tool to help you avoid drunk dialing. Read on for all the details!
Having prepared many meals with the help of a computer or an iPhone, we’re aware that there are millions of recipes floating around on the Internet. They’re free, they’re simple to follow, and all they generally lack for are four things: iPhone-formatted screens, cookbook-style photographs, a way to read them offline, and an editor to tell you which are the best. BigOven (Free) from BigOven/Lakefront Software satisfies two of these needs: it provides an iPhone-formatted interface for browsing and searching through 160,000 recipes from the BigOven web site, many complete with nice photos, as well as a glossary of food terms. The good news here is that the recipes are numerous: there are 225 recipes for chocolate chip cookies alone, obviously with plenty of overlap and the most photogenic ones shown first. Bad news: you’ll have to sift through them yourself 10 at a time, and can only access them when you have an Internet connection—there’s no save feature, only a way to create a “favorites” list that depends on a BigOven account. Most people won’t mind these issues, particularly given the fact that you can find almost anything in the database, and the app’s free, ad-suppported design; we’d like to see a save option in an update. iLounge Rating: B+.
There are easily dozens, perhaps hundreds of “to do list” applications in the App Store, and we’re not going to evaluate every one of them or recommend that you cough up cash for this functionality. Instead, we want to point you towards Free Foodle (Free) by Anything Honest, a grocery-specific app that lets you create a shopping list for free. You enter in items you need to buy—assisted by Free Foodle’s food word recommender, which helps with categories but not brand names—and the list gets created. Re-organize the list into your preferred shopping order, check off items as you get them, and shake the iPhone to move acquired items to the bottom of your list. It’s simple, does what it is supposed to do, and is free. We’re not reviewing the $3 paid version, but if you want to store multiple lists rather than just keeping one, it’s available. iLounge Rating: B.
The “Local Food” movement started small almost 40 years ago, picking up steam over the next decade as chefs such as Alice Waters began to emphasize the virtues of using locally grown, seasonal ingredients to create fresh, “slow” food rather than reheated frozen and “fast” food. Though the concept still isn’t mainstream and has become controversial, as critics contend that local foods cause problems of their own, it recently gained the support of the Obama Administration, and now has an iPhone app to help facilitate sourcing, growing, and shopping. Locavore ($3) by Buster McLeod figures out where you live and then uses screens to tell you what’s currently in season and about to come into season soon, providing a list of distance-sorted local farmers’ markets, and access to both master lists of foods and states to see when and where specific items will be fresh. While it’s hard to say that these features are worthy of the average user’s $3, particularly as the seasonal lists are sorted only by state, and the food categories are broad (“beans,” “apples”) rather than really delving into regional varieties or other educational details, fans of the movement will find this to be a helpful and cleanly designed little tool. iLounge Rating: B-.
In some cities, actually making a phone call for reservations is becoming old-fashioned, thanks to online electronic reservation services that handle everything for you. Employing a computerized scheduling system that lets both restaurants and customers see what times and dates are available up to a month in advance, OpenTable is one of the leaders in online reservations, and has extended its service to the free iPhone app OpenTable. Though the app’s value will vary tremendously from city to city—we tested in Western New York and found only eight local restaurants using the service—we liked its framework, namely your ability to pick a place, see its menu, select a time and make a reservation without having to set up a user account. In addition to the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and several other countries are included, some with far more sparing coverage than others, while major U.S. cities have no shortage of participating restaurants. This is a nice, useful little app that needs little more than for additional restaurants to get on board. iLounge Rating: B.
Adventure is half the fun of eating, so it’s not surprising that foodies sometimes get stuck wondering what to order from unfamiliar menus. With an iPhone in hand, help isn’t far away. Three different apps we looked at are designed to help educate fans of Chinese and Japanese food about some of the choices they might not know already by name.
Chinese Food Menu ($3) by Zero/Hilton Lee and Yum Cha Dim Sum ($3) by Soarzone are both devoted to one of our long-time favorites, Chinese food, which Westerners have only recently discovered is actually a far deeper and broader cuisine than the stuff they’ve been eating for decades. Chinese Food Menu aims to inform by dividing the world of Chinese into both regional cuisines and non-regional genres: you start with a menu divided into Beijing Cuisine, Cantonese Cuisine, Chiuchow Cuisine, Congee + Noodle Dishes, Dim Sum Dishes, Fukien Cuisine, Hakka Cuisine, Shanghai Cuisine, Szechwan Cuisine, Taiwan Cuisine, and Yunnan Cuisine, some represented substantially better than others. Tap any cuisine and a list of dishes will appear, complete with decent photos, titles, and Chinese characters—that’s it. No additional ingredients or explanation are offered, but you can search the list’s titles with a dedicated search bar; unfortunately, spelling mistakes can reduce the number of results. While this app isn’t anywhere near as useful as it could be, and further requires a persistent Internet connection to display results, it does illustrate the breadth of Chinese cuisine in a way that most menus won’t, and may help you find a picture of something that sounds interesting on a given menu’s description. iLounge Rating: C.
Yum Cha Dim Sum is a far more impressively executed app, though it’s much more narrow in scope: it puts aside most of the prior categories save for Dim Sum dishes, the Chinese equivalent of tapas that sees diners ordering and typically sharing a variety of small, inexpensive plates; it also includes handfuls of noodle, rice, congee, and tea choices. Each of Yum Cha’s entries receives a photo, Chinese and English names, plus a pinyin pronunciation guide to the Chinese name. Tap on the entry and you’ll also get rough caloric information and a very abbreviated list of key ingredients; the database can be sorted by caloric content, food type, or ingredient, as well as text-searched. As with Chinese Restaurant Menu above, you can use this app to improve your knowledge at home or look up items while you’re out; it thankfully stores its content on your device without the need for an Internet connection, and has a nice database of dim sum choices, too. iLounge Rating: B.
Fans of Japanese food may appreciate the less expensive SushiTime ($1) by Standandcount.com even more. With a database that includes common appetizers and plenty of types of sushi, SushiTime also features a glossary of ingredients, beverages, styles of sushi, and a handful of relevant Japanese terms. On a positive note, if you’re looking at an unfamiliar menu and aren’t sure what Ayu is, you can easily find it in the alphabetical database. But if you want to find the correct word for Squid so you can try ordering in Japanese, you’ll have to dig through everything: there’s no search feature or English-language directory. The app is also light on Westernized sushi variants, sticking mostly but not exclusively to classical sushi rather than premium rolls. Nice, colorful photography and simple descriptions make the app fun to page through, and a favorites list lets you store sushi that interest you for whenever your next visit might be. For a buck, this is a nice little guide to sushi and associated Japanese food; pronunciation assistance, a search feature, and even more listings would help. iLounge Rating: B.
The last four apps we’re looking at today are all restaurant finders, designed to help you locate nearby or distant restaurants that meet your culinary criteria. We’ve reviewed one of them before—UrbanSpoon (Free) by Wanderspot/Urbanspoon, back in late October of 2008—but the app has improved over time, and we wanted to discuss it again in the context of other offerings that are out there. Its chief rival app, Yelp (Free) by Yelp, is reviewed today for the first time.
Both Urbanspoon and Yelp are web sites that offer users access to growing databases of restaurants inside and outside of the United States, aggregating details about the restaurants and user reviews on easy-to-read entry pages. In the interest of full disclosure, this writer also runs a restaurant review web site that participates (without compensation) in Urbanspoon but not Yelp—though it would be preferable to participate in both, only Urbanspoon offers web links to full off-site reviews, one of a number of features that has made Urbanspoon a more useful tool when we’ve hunted for local and foreign restaurants.
The iPhone versions of both of these web sites currently have the same general features: a location finder that lets you figure out what’s nearby, sorted by distance, and iPhone-formatted pages that can include photos, a summary of reviews, individual reviews, phone numbers and map directions. Yelp has a cool Results Map that shows you where multiple restaurant locations are on a nicely overlaid Google Map of your area, and displays reader reviews for restaurants on a 5-star scale. Urbanspoon by comparison offers a less impressively formatted but more detailed map, and though it only lets readers offer a thumbs up or down vote, it now permits direct-from-iPhone voting, reviewing, restaurant adding, and menu-adding, the latter via the iPhone’s camera.
Though a volume could be written about what each of these apps could use to become even better, what we’ve found ourselves doing is using both: Yelp also includes non-restaurant listings, while Urbanspoon’s database has continued to become more impressive—at least in our area—where restaurants are concerned. Both apps let you search by cuisine, restaurant names, and location, with Urbanspoon also offering a “shake to find a restaurant” feature, a list of restaurants recommended by friends feature, and easier search term entry. While it would be great to have one app replace the need for the other, they’re both good; Urbanspoon’s a little better. iLounge Rating (Urbanspoon): B+. iLounge Rating (Yelp): B.
Of course, there are other restaurant guides out there, some free, and others not. We tend to be extremely suspicious of ones that are produced by random or heavily advertising-focused sources, because there are untold numbers of companies out there doing little more than selling places on a “Best Local Restaurants” list in order to make money for themselves. In the Internet age, where user reviews can be posted by pretty much anyone with any agenda, fully trustworthy guides to what’s good are becoming harder to find.
Taking a different slant on this problem is GoodFoodNearYou (Free) by Fitplanet, an app which doesn’t try to tell you what places to visit, but rather lets you know what sorts of healthy food options are offered at major chain restaurants near you. The concept, which some may pooh-pooh, is to provide low-cal, low-fat, or low-carb menu picks from the types of places people are most likely to gravitate towards—McDonald’s, Starbucks, Dominos, Subway, and so on—so that people can try to eat well even if they’re stuck eating at unhealthy restaurants. While GoodFoodNearYou won’t save you from a bad meal at an Applebee’s, and in fact is more likely to guide you there than to any of the tens of thousands of local restaurants offered in the Urbanspoon and Yelp directories, it does provide very quick clickable guides to the safer parts of the menus for restaurants it canvasses. It’s a good idea with an okay database of restaurants, but with database improvements, it could be great. iLounge Rating: B-.
Finally, there’s the “expert” option: the App Store currently offers a couple of Michelin guides—France for $10, all of Europe for $19—but we’ve opted not to review them because of both their exclusively European content and the fact that they can’t be used without persistent Internet access. Taken together, this is fatal for U.S.-based iPhone users who aren’t on generous international roaming plans or within Wi-Fi hotspot access while in Europe; good luck finding a place to eat with the Michelin apps while you’re on the Paris Metro.
Though Zagat to Go ‘09 ($10) by Handmark isn’t much better in terms of its approach to Internet access—you still have to connect to EDGE, 3G, or Wi-Fi in order to access its listings—the app is legitimately useful in the United States, at least, sometimes. If you’re in or interested in searching for places within a major city, the Guide provides lists of Zagat-rated restaurants, shopping locales, and hotels that can be accessed at the city level; a summary page appears for each with the address, phone number, URL, Zagat ratings and summary, hours of operation, and features. A Map button lets you get directions with the iPhone’s Google Maps feature, and a search screen provides access to the expected filtering categories.
What’s good about the Zagat app is the apparent scope of its coverage: it includes major U.S. cities, a huge number of foreign countries, and specific neighborhood-level details, as well. But when you really dig into the app, you begin to discover that for all of its categorization, there often aren’t many actual venues listed for a given place—the massive city of Mumbai (Bombay), India for instance only has three total listings, all hotels, and Tokyo isn’t much better, with plenty of district names but few actual places to visit. Less than huge U.S. cities receive short shrift, as well. In our view, most U.S.-based users would be better off saving their cash and relying upon Urbanspoon and/or Yelp instead; as flawed as each might be, the $10 asking price and comparatively weak coverage offered by Zagat To Go ‘09 make it even less appealing. iLounge Rating: C.
One of the challenges facing budding foodies and sophisticated drinkers alike is “pairing”—the challenge of matching a bottle of wine to a given entree in a manner that avoids clashes between the flavors of food and drink. Wine Steward ($1) by Inkling Technology Partners has the advantages of a beautiful interface and a fairly robust database of food types that can be paired with different varieties of wine, enabling you to type in even nearly random terms—“scrambled eggs,” or “tonkatsu,” for instance—and get a set of recommendations that constitute “excellent,” “unusual,” and “adventurous” (read: good luck) pairings, ranked by percentage. There’s even a 3-D globe that can be spun around to see what other users are drinking and pairing, a feature that looks really cool but doesn’t serve much of a purpose, as well as a list you can create of your own wines, similarly with a beautiful interface design.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the app sometimes doesn’t load the wine descriptions it should be loading after it makes its varietal suggestions, doesn’t offer pointers to specific wines—admittedly, a challenge—and could stand to offer a simpler, single-button-press category interface as an alternative to having to type in your food choices. This reasonably priced $1 app will point novices in the right direction, but additional polish and more specific wine information could help Wine Steward to become even more useful. iLounge Rating: B.
By contrast, Entaste Food & Wine Pairing ($2) from Miniature Studios offers a simplified interface, along with unfortunately simplified recommendations. To its credit, Entaste makes pairing as straightforward as loading an iPhone app: simply click on one of 19 food icons and you’ll get recommendations from a list of over 100 types of wine, each with a description screen. There’s no need to type “scrambled eggs”—“egg” is just listed as one of the categories—and if you want to reference the complete wine list to look up information on a given varietal, you can. Entaste has done a good job of assembling different wine options, even if some of them are going to be a challenge to actually find in specific local restaurants.
Once you’re past the main icons screen, this app’s simplicity turns out to be more of a problem than a benefit. If you’re interested in a wine to go with pizza, you’ll note that Wine Steward ranks the wine options by percentage and quickly tells you which are excellent and very good choices; Entaste provides just a list of names and icons to indicate wine color and varietal or appellation status. Similarly, if you’re looking for a type of food that isn’t covered by the app, or want a more specific recommendation than just “egg,” you’re not going to find it here. There aren’t any search tools or additional frills buried beneath the surface of the menu structure. Overall, Wine Steward is a much better value for its lower price than Entaste, but both apps could stand to take interface and feature lessons from the other. iLounge Rating: C+.
Drunk dialing—drinking too much and then contacting people you know—may not be the most serious issue out there, but if you’re given to nights of extended eating and drinking, Don’t Dial ($1) by Cuttlefish Industries is here to help. Using a neat little technique that we’re surprised to see actually working on the iPhone, Don’t Dial lets you select individual contacts to completely block from receiving phone calls: once they’re selected, the app temporarily replaces their contact information and telephone numbers with XXXXX’s, such that if you attempt to dial, the iPhone fails. Individual contacts can be locked for a specific period of time—8, 12, or 24 hours from now, or just the next morning at 8am—or password-protected with a password that you let a friend set for you, then either enter later or wait 24 hours to unlock. While Don’t Dial hasn’t been polished yet to a T with some obvious features, such as an all-contacts lock or a true block on e-mail addresses, which appear as X’s but can still be mailed to, it does generally what it’s supposed to do and doesn’t cost much. It’s an interesting little app for serious drinkers. iLounge Rating: B-.
[Editor’s Note: This article was updated after original publication to add a second wine pairing application, Entaste Food & Wine Pairing.]