When I’m planning a trip, I probably spend more time investigating restaurants than any other part of the trip planning.  It could be that we are foodies and like to explore local cuisine, but it is mainly because my family gets really cranky when they are hungry and tired.  My first step is to figure out where we will be at meal time — just leaving an attraction, back at the hotel, or moving from one place to another. From there I research restaurants in the area, keeping in mind how tired we might be, what transportation is available, where we are going next, and what we will be wearing (will we be sweaty and disheveled or showered and refreshed?)  With that information in hand, I turn to my trusty sources. These are the best apps for finding a restaurant.

Best Apps for Finding a Restaurant — Before you Go

If I’m creating an itinerary before I leave home, there are some handy dandy websites that I use to find the as-close-to-perfect-as-possible place:

OpenTable: OpenTable is one of my favorite resources for finding a place for dinner because it is easy to search by neighborhood and other criteria.  While the listings aren’t extensive (limited to those restaurants that use OpenTable for booking), I like the ability to quickly book reservations without making a lot of phone calls.  The reviews are from registered users only, so the quality is fairly reliable, and they tend to be from a mix of tourists and locals.  Now that OpenTable owns Foodspotting, it also incorporates pictures from Foodspotting users, giving you a good idea of what to expect when dining and the most popular dishes.  They have also moved to including menus on the site so I can quickly screen options without clicking through to a lot of restaurant sites.  Plus, as a bonus you earn points for every reservation toward dining certificates.

TripAdvisor: When you want to find places that appeal to travelers, TripAdvisor is the place I turn.  I find the reviews on TripAdvisor of good quality, because once again they are from registered users.  As with all listings on TripAdvisor, I also find hints of what a place is like from the professional and user photos that have been uploaded.  I wouldn’t put too much credibility behind the rankings on TripAdvisor (#1 Restaurant doesn’t necessarily equate to #1 in food quality) and I do wish there was greater granularity in neighborhood searches.

Yelp: Yelp is the place I turn to find the broadest listings of casual and neighborhood dining and read reviews from locals.  Unfortunately this depth also brings a lot of less desirable listings to sort through (think fast food).  Yelp also has a pretty bad reputation for fake reviews so take everything you read there with a grain of salt and search for the median.

TV Food Maps : If I am looking for something from a celebrity chef or that has been featured on TV, this is the place I look.

Pinterest: A quick search on Pinterest helps find good blog posts from family travelers that often talk about where they have eaten and places they have found kid friendly.

Google: When all else fails, a simple search like “lunch in Inner Harbor” or “best restaurants in Baltimore” will yield plenty of results including blog posts, images, and local restaurant listings conveniently plotted on a map.

Before deciding on a place, I visit the restaurant website to view the current menu to make sure it suits our family and see if there are any additional pictures available to make sure the ambience is appropriate. Sound like overkill? I tend to overdo it on the research but a good meal does keep the trip running smoothly without all the “where do you want to eat, I don’t know where do you want to eat…what about this one, what about that one…does this look good…I don’t know, what do you think…no, what do you think…”

Best Apps for Finding a Restaurant — On the Road

If I haven’t planned ahead or plans changed and we need to find a place (fast), a rely on a handful of mobile apps. In addition to the apps for the sites mentioned above (OpenTable, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Food Network on the Road, and TV Food Maps), I also turn to the following:

Foursquare: Foursquare has gotten quite good at making suggestions for nearby restaurants and places that people go after your current check in location.  You can see what restaurants are appear on users’ lists, read tips, and see where your friends have checked in.  At the very least, it pays to checkin on arrival to see if there are any specials or to find out what other Foursquare users recommend.  I’ve identified many house specialties this way.

Eat Street: I adore the food truck culture that has become so popular in so many cities. While I know what the best trucks are in RI, finding food trucks in a new city can be a challenge. I use the Eat Street app from FoodTV to identify food trucks and locate them on the map based on their Twitter streams. Eat Street isn’t comprehensive so before I leave, I like to check the app store to see if there are local apps for finding food trucks, like the Street Food Boston app.

With all of these resources, here are some basic criteria that I look for:

  • Is the location convenient?
  • Will everyone find something to eat based on the menu?
  • Does it offer a local specialty?
  • Is the price right?
  • Based on pictures found online, does the atmosphere seem suitable?
  • Is it open when we plan to go?
  • Do they offer reservations?

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