August 14, 2008

iHunger - Part 1: Urbanspoon (with special guest Bob Dylan)

After dealing with faulty charger cables and the snide comments of Gawker-reading young women across the greater NYC area for the past year or so, I finally caved and traded in my Motorola E815 for an iPhone. I wanted to get it before I left for Montreal but my lack of time and the generally limited supply meant I had to wait until this Monday. When I called the Apple store a week ago, I was told I would need to pick up a ticket in the morning and return later on to purchase the phone. Demand must have gone down sometime during the last week because I was able to make it from my office at 42nd & 3rd, up to the Apple store at Grand Army Plaza and back again in under 90 minutes.

The difference has been life altering. Now, I'm not trying to say that the is iPhone indispensable or anything. I'm just saying the magnitude of the upgrade has been tremendous. Hell, I wrote a blog post on that sucker last night from the comfort of my bed. While I did hack that Motorola, a feat I accomplished with the help of the communityu, watching 3gp files and surfing the Web simply aren't in the same ballpark as far as utility.

This post will serve as the first in an ongoing series about iPhone apps related to food. I'll also do another series on music-related apps (enter witty title here). There are a bunch of each type out there, with more sure to come and a whole slew more for "jailbreaked" (jailbroken?) phones, so this will take some time and treasure. The first app(lication) I'm going to review is Urbanspoon, a restaurant search tool recommended to me by my sister-in-law and fellow new iPhone owner, Becca. This was the first app I paid for and I wasted no time giving it a go.

Tuesday night, Bob Dylan played a show at the bandshell in Prospect Park which is all of a 5 minute walk from my apartment. Tickets sold out almost immediately but we did what we always do when we don't want to or can't get into a show - grab some wine, cheese and crackers and attend what amounts to a live podcast. In fact, of the 5 years we've lived in Park Slope, we've only actually gone inside for one show, the Spoon show earlier this summer (brief review: Not that impressed. Decent muscianship but not enough to make up for their relative lack of showmanship). In all that time, we've seen some great acts - Ben Folds, Maceo Parker (with special guest Prince) and Ani DiFranco - but there's never been a crowd like the one on Tuesday, in terms of size, age range and demeanor.

After the show, Mary Beth, Paul and I decided to grab some dinner. Now, I've tried to be cool about my new toy - is there anything worse than when someone shoves their latest gadget in your face? - but after 5 minutes debating potential eateries, I felt this was the right time to pull this bad boy out and see what it was made of.

When you first launch the app, the software figures out your current location and loads the restaurants in that area; you can also manually select your location if you prefer. Unfortunately, this information isn't stored for your next use so you have to wait each time, which can be annoying when you don't have an optimal connection. With any luck, the developers will address this in a future update.

Once your location is loaded, you're ready to roll. The interface looks like a slot machine with three dials - one for neighborhoods, one for cuisine type and one for price range ($ - $$$$). You can choose a specific input for any or all of the dials by tapping the lock icon below. Then, you simply shake the phone or tap the Shake button to access information on a random restaurant that fits your criteria. Result include phone number, address and user reviews. What you can't access is a menu, which is a clearly a major drawback. In addition to the slot machine interface, you can also use the app to share notes with friends, browse restaurants by name, perform a simple keyword search and find places in your immediate vicinity.

Urbanspoon Demo

As far as the results, our first experience was a complete success. Within a few shakes, we settled on Oshima, a decent Japanese restaurant on 7th Ave between Berkeley and Lincoln. The staff was extremely nice, seating us despite the fact that we arrived about 15 minutes before their scheduled close. As a result, we were rushed a bit but it wasn't anything obnoxious. The three rolls were on par with Yamato, our regular neighborhood maki spot, and the "$$" price tag was on the money, no pun intended - 3 rolls, an order of edamame beans, and a single glass of cold sake for $46.


Rebecca said...

I agree that the lack of menu is a drawback for the app. In the meantime though, you can click "Read Reviews" on the restaurant's info screen and NYmag is usually the first or one of the first critic reviews that comes up. NYmag now has the menus for almost all the restaurants in their database and you can check it out there. (I suppose this only goes so far though - helping people looking for restaurants that would be in NYmag.) Just a thought!

Alan Maginn said...

Hmm. Not as convenient as a direct link to a menu but still pretty helpful. Thanks for the heads up, Becca.