I just read an interesting article in the Washington Post's travel section about traveling with no guidebooks, advance planning or reservations---just a wallet and an iPhone. The author used applications, or apps, to find everything from a parking spot to a hotel room, with only a few minor glitches. Since he also used it to find local restaurants and navigate their menus, it got me thinking about food-related apps. (I don't have an iPhone, but my iPod Touch functions similarly when in range of a wireless network.)
Here are a few food-related apps I've tried and liked; most of them are free. All are available from Apple; several can also be downloaded for other kinds of smartphones (BlackBerry, Android, Nokia, Palm) from the developer's websites. Feel free to chime in with your own recommendations!
1. Urban Spoon. The shakeable slot machine gimmick is part of the fun with this one, but it's also a reliable source of user-generated restaurant reviews. Handy when you can't decide exactly where to go, but have a general price range, cuisine or neighborhood in mind.
2. Open Table. This is an easy, free way to make a reservation at some 13,000 restaurants in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, and I like the bonus of accruing rewards points which can be redeemed toward the cost of future dining.
3. Whole Foods Recipes. A fairly small database, but useful because all the recipes show nutrition information and are based on fresh, natural ingredients. I like being able to search for recipes by specific ingredient (or a combination of up to 3 ingredients). Let's say you have beets on hand, for example---you can choose from recipes ranging from borscht to roasted beet and fennel salad, then make a shopping list to e-mail to yourself. And, of course, it'll point you to the closest Whole Foods store.
4. Big Oven. This is a massive database of over 170,000 recipes, which means there's bound to be some mediocre ones in there, but there are also plenty of reliable classics. You can base your search on ingredients you have on hand, exclude specific ingredients, or let the app pick a recipe at random. You can even see what other people are cooking in your geographic area---which I don't really care about, to be honest, unless they're going to invite me over!
5. Epicurious. My favorite recipe tool, because it includes the archives from Gourmet and Bon Appetit. I recognize many of the dishes as things I bookmarked and never remembered to return to among the stacks of magazines on the coffee table; this makes them easy to find again and save as favorites. It's well-organized into a range of categories that include specific occasions (Fourth of July), times of day (weeknight dinners) and dietary considerations (low-fat).
6. Grocery IQ. There are shopping-list functions included in most of the recipe apps, but this is worth getting separately if you're into particular brands and/or coupons. Notice one morning that you're running low on Cheerios? Hold your phone's camera up to the barcode on the cereal box, and that specific product will be added to your shopping list. Then you can search to see if there are any coupons available for Cheerios (or cereals in general), and send them to your inbox or printer.
7. ShopShop. If you just want to write down a basic shopping list but have a tendency to lose little slips of paper, this is perfect. No bells and whistles.
8. Seafood Watch Guide. Keeping track of what's being overfished or mismanaged can be confusing for consumers, but this tool breaks down the issues into a format you can access quickly while perusing the specials of the day at the fish counter. King crab may be on sale, for example, but is it sustainable? Depends whether it's imported (on the "avoid" list) or from the U.S. (a "good alternative"). But don't hide behind technology too much---simply talking to the fishmonger could be your best source of information.