Better eating through technology

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Tech tips for dining out

Like cell phones and DVRs, it’s hard to remember our life before dining apps. It reminds me of my favorite headline from The Onion: Brave Woman Enters Restaurant Without First Looking It Up Online. Brave woman, indeed.

Our dependence is legitimate, though. What if it isn’t open today? What if we’re just missing happy hour? What if it has awful reviews? What about parking? A good app answers these questions. A great app pushes you to discover a hidden jewel of the neighborhood, helps you avoid a bad restaurant that sounded like a sure thing, or even entices you out for a good time when you planned on staying in. Eating out apps should not only inform, but motivate you to explore your city.

Happy Hours

Happy Hours helps you pick your poison.

If you need good, but affordable, food and drinks in a hurry, definitely check out the new app Happy Hours. Unlike the many goofily-named apps nowadays, Happy Hours does exactly what you think: Gives you all the happy hours that are happening in your vicinity at this very second.

Both the simplicity and the breadth are key here. Load up Happy Hour, allow it to determine your location, and it will give a listing of everything happening around you. When I load it up, a list is given to me within a few seconds. San Francisco alone has 1225 happy hour listings, but more impressive are the dozens of cities represented. Need ale in Akron, a pint in Palm Springs, or a beer in Bend? Happy Hours’ got you covered. Tilt your smartphone's screen horizontally and the listings turn into a map of the city.

The listings themselves focus only on pertinent information: The sales, the happy hour time, sharing options, and contact information. You can also see how other people rate the happy hour with the Siskel & Ebert-like thumbs-up/thumbs-down system and, of course, rate it yourself.

Happy Hours focuses on drinks, but it also lists the food specials that often go hand-in-hand with good libations. Filters allow you to focus on types of drinks and other layers.

Grubwithus

Grubwithus gets groups together.

Grubwithus is one of the more practical apps around, especially for people like myself who have moved to a new city or travel a bunch. Kind of like Meetup for foodies, Grubwithus lets you share a restaurant meal with other like-minded folks. For instance, there may be a Grubwithus get-together called “Single Moms brunch” organized by a member.

The price is fixed ahead of time—no squabbling over who got what— and the invite can be made public to anyone with the Grubwithus app or privatized for specific people in the settings. It is a solid way to meet new people over food, especially if you’re new to an area, visiting, or looking to network and connect with others.

OpenTable

OpenTable's offerings.

If Grubwithus is nice to have, OpenTable is a necessity. OpenTable allows you to quickly reserve a table at a restaurant. Like the website, the app makes reservations based on cuisine, time, and location. If it can’t get you an exact reservation, it will recommend something in the two and a half hours before or after your desired time. Once set, it emails you a confirmation and, depending on the scale of the restaurant, the proprietor will call you to confirm.

The consistency here is awesome: After using it repeatedly for several years, OpenTable has never lost, screwed up, or duplicated a reservation. OpenTable’s reliability is paramount when you consider all the anniversaries, birthdays, and other major milestones that we celebrate over dinner.

While putzing around a few weeks ago, I realized that French Laundry, one of the most important restaurants in the world, now accepts reservations through OpenTable. If a $300 per sitting culinary giant is using OpenTable, it’s probably worth a free download.

Chef's Feed

Chef's Feed features chef's recommendations.

Speaking of French Laundry, newcomer Chef’s Feed takes Yelp's recommendation model one step further and gives testimonials from the culinary masters themselves. If you’re wondering where Emeril Lagasse likes to get his po’boys in New Orleans, then this app is for you.

The app will find what restaurants are near you, but it adds an extra filter of restaurants recommended by chefs and gives a brief synopsis from the chefs on why a particular place is first-rate. The best part is chefs that go beyond recommending a place and also highlight a specific meal, like getting the beef brisket at Chicago’s Smoque BBQ (always a good call). Right now the recommendations are limited to about 20 American cities, but the big guys like New York, San Francisco and Atlanta are represented well.

Traditionalists will get all they need from the basic list, but I prefer the colorful, photo-based recommendations organized by chef. Pinterest is an obvious inspiration here, not only because of the image-focused chefs page, but also from the ability to “pin” interesting restaurants within the app. Foodie photographers have the option to tap the “ate it” icon and take a picture of the meal to share with friends.

Ness

Ness is a photo-heavy guide.

Ad hoc food photography is the soup du jour on Instagram, Pinterest and other food apps, but none seem to take it as seriously as Ness. Half social network, half photo gallery, but 100 percent food-focused, Ness gives you recommendations on where to eat and encourages you to take pictures of your food while you’re there.

Ratings, commentary, and other details come into play, but Ness really centers on a lush, image-strong search system. Open the app and you can immediately tap one of the gorgeous pics representing popular food types like sushi or pizza. Another tap will give a listing of all those types of restaurants around you.

It’s hard not to salivate a little when you see Ness’ original or crowdsourced photography displayed on your phone. Thankfully, honest five-star-based reviews balance out the endless images of food porn. Of all the food apps available, right now Ness is the best place to see or share food pictures, especially since you can push them to other social networks.

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