Wired for Food

Eating the way you want to eat made easier by the World Wide Web.

by André Natta

One thing I’ve been forever grateful for during my time in Birmingham is the area’s love of food. We’re a little spoiled considering the number of dining options available to us on a given night (not to mention the number of James Beard-nominated establishments). It can be difficult to choose where to go and what to eat. Enter the collective mind of the Internet.

Now there are plenty of websites available to help you make that decision—some are the usual suspects among digital spaces. It’s not always easy to access a website when you’re out of town or tied up because of running from one place to the other throughout the day. We all know someone who looks at the tips left when they’ve checked in via Foursquare. What if you’re looking for mobile access to a different set of web-based recommendations? Maybe even from foodies?

Here are a few suggestions tied to larger online communities to consider downloading after you’ve finished updating the latest security update for your phone (you are doing that, right?):

OpenTable – I’ve used this service for some time now via its website while on business trips and have been pleased with the results. The app (available for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone in addition to Blackberry and Kindle Fire) is extremely easy to use and makes it easier to follow through on that last minute plan for a night out. The majority of the 45 establishments currently participating in Alabama are located in metro Birmingham. (opentable.com/mobile/)

Foodspotting – While we have our favorite restaurants, it’s most likely because of our love of a specific dish. Foodspotting allows you to share photos of those dishes with other foodies (granted, there are also recommendations available from “experts” like the folks at the Travel Channel). The idea of seeing what you’ll be ordering before you ever step foot in the restaurant can greatly reduce the degree of “buyer’s remorse” that could come from envying the dish your eating companion picked. It is also available for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone, in addition to Blackberry and Kindle Fire. (foodspotting.com/ – scroll to bottom of pages for links to app downloads)

Urbanspoon – While OpenTable has been around for several years, it always felt as though Urbanspoon received the most attention here in Birmingham when it first launched. There are many restaurants throughout the metro area that show off a decal on or near their front door signifying their high-rated reviews on the site. Sites like this one and Foodspotting are much more user-driven than OpenTable, meaning what you’ll find depends on what entries have been made and the level of local love for some restaurants over others. This site’s found a way to cut through most of the noise though, providing a helpful hand when you’re desperately attempting to break out of your normal dining-out routine.

There are also options available for those seeking vegetarian and vegan food options and those looking for gluten-free solutions. Find Me Gluten Free is available for iOS and Android and extremely helpful, making me aware of options I didn’t know existed before thanks to the the app using my phone’s built-in GPS (as is the case with all of these suggestions this month). There are no pictures, but I’m thinking the written recommendations and peace of mind more than make up for it. (findmeglutenfree.com/)

The folks behind Happy Cow have made their site’s data available to developers, enabling apps for both Android and iOS users to discover vegetarian options wherever they find themselves. Many of those options are paid apps, though they’ve made their own free apps available for vegans and vegetarians alike to know their options—and what they’ll be getting when they order. It helps you find vegan and vegetarian-friendly stores as well. (happycow.net/mobile.html)

It could be argued that these apps have helped to raise the level of all restaurants, though you’ll still want to ultimately trust your own gut. Hopefully you’ll take some time to use these tools to make that next choice a little easier—before you turn off the phone or tablet for a little while to enjoy your newest culinary discovery.

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