The On-Line Gourmet
Best of the Web
Dining guides can steer busy executives to the perfect restaurant. But not every site provides a four-star experience
Forget the guidebooks and the regional magazines. Whether you're seeking a bistro in Baltimore, a steak house in Silicon Valley, or a cafÉ in Cincinnati, the Web's the place to turn for the hottest, freshest dining data available. Right?
Well, not exactly.
True, there's a smorgasbord of online restaurant guides, covering big cities and small towns in every state (and, in a few cases, overseas locations as well). But the quality and quantity of the information that those sites dish up varies as widely as the places they promote.
We set out to identify the best online dining guides for busy executives seeking a quiet, elegant spot to close a business deal or a beer-and-pizza joint halfway between an airport and a hotel. We eliminated several sites that seemed too regional, too specialized, or too limited. That left us with nine major dining guides, all of them searchable and many with extras such as online reservation systems, free recipes, and driving directions.
Then we recruited four CEOs who dine out frequently to assess the sites for us. We asked them to sample broadly from the Internet buffet, using the guides to look up their favorite restaurants and to find new ones. Their conclusion: like the restaurants themselves, online dining guides have their specialties. Even the best guides won't necessarily please every palate. As John Diehl, the globe-trotting CEO of a Chicago-area high-tech company, puts it, "No single site has it all."
That's undoubtedly why our reviewers -- with their widely divergent tastes -- made their top picks from all over the menu. For Seattle PR executive Bob Silver, it was a toss-up between Citysearch, with its elegant design and comprehensive content, and the clean, almost spartan Zagat site, Zagat.com, with its best-in-class search engine. "Citysearch is lush, rich, and flavorful, like an evening visit to a Parisian supper club," said Silver, who tests new recipes on friends and relatives on weekends. "Zagat is a trip to a delightful Asian restaurant that is spare in its surroundings but deliciously surprising and satisfying." Rob Marler, a Florida E-tailer who dines out about seven times a week, also recommended Citysearch, saying it had "a lot to offer" and was "easy to navigate." Manhattan marketing executive Jill Gabbe, who reads cookbooks for fun, praised Zagat.com for its "high-quality, reliable information" and Menus.com for its online reservation service and restaurant menus. Diehl, who spends more time in restaurants than in his kitchen, gave kudos to DineSite.com for both its design and its wealth of content on topics such as wine selection, etiquette, and regional cuisine. What's more, he called Fodors.com the best guide for finding restaurants overseas.
On the downside our four critics complained that some E-guides -- including two that we subsequently dropped from our survey at their recommendation -- simply listed restaurants without critiquing or rating them. "I could find the same information in the yellow pages," sniffed Marler. Other sites, including some that made our final cut, sometimes forgot to use the Web's special ingredient: the capability to constantly update content, adding new establishments and removing the listings of restaurants that had closed.
Overall, though, our panelists believed that the best of the online dining directories were a helpful alternative to traditional hard-copy guides. But Gabbe, our New York tester, will also rely on her tried-and-true method of selecting a dining spot: "I'll ask a friend or have the person I'm meeting with make the call."
What it's good for: Speedy searches of comprehensive listings, especially for big cities.
Don't waste your time if: You're looking for nearby suburban restaurants; one user's search returned listings up to 40 miles away.
What our CEOs had to say: "Wow! This site has it all: great content, speed and ease of use. ... the filet mignon of dining guides." "Sleek, attractive site. ... I really liked the sidebar descriptions of atmosphere and price."
What it's good for: Basic restaurant listings, supplemented with customer reviews and food-related articles.
Don't waste your time if: You want the latest information or the most independent restaurant critiques.
What our CEOs had to say: "It included reviews for a restaurant in my hometown that was bulldozed a year ago." "The site's proprietary content has a chamber-of-commerce feel to it."
What it's good for: Customer reviews, including many for establishments in small communities.
Don't waste your time if: You frequent only spots that are recommended by professional restaurant critics.
What our CEOs had to say: "What a list! Even a small town of 900 people had its restaurants listed."
What it's good for: Listings for communities of all sizes, book reviews, and customer comments about restaurants.
Don't waste your time if: You want comprehensive, detailed restaurant reviews.
What our CEOs had to say: "The best of the bunch. I will bookmark this one." "The basic information is fine. But the site lacks depth and detail."
What it's good for: Basic info on a limited number of restaurants in major cities.
Don't waste your time if: You want a list of every eatery in town; the site features selected listings.
What our CEOs had to say: "The only guide with restaurants in international cities." "Search by Name feature is hard to find." (Editor's note: The site features an alphabetical listing called Sort by Name but doesn't provide the capability to search by a specific restaurant name.)
What it's good for: Finding and ordering food for delivery or takeout.
Don't waste your time if: You're interested in going out for dinner.
What our CEOs had to say: "A couch potato's dream. ... If I need to feed the football fans but can't leave the television, this is where I'd turn."
What it's good for: Easy, effective searching through well-packaged information.
Don't waste your time if: You're in a hurry or seeking something very specific.
What our CEOs had to say: "A large array of conveniences for the busy executive." "It loaded very slowly." "When I looked for a French restaurant near my home, I was given 53 choices -- none of which was a French restaurant."
What it's good for: Searching extensive listings; making online reservations.
Don't waste your time if: You object to a stripped-down, bare-bones presentation.
What our CEOs had to say: "By far, the most extensive online database, in terms of restaurant listings." "Several of the restaurants I searched for by name were not found." "Charges nearly $5 per reservation made online; I don't know why someone would bother if they have a telephone handy."
What it's good for: World-class searching using lots of criteria, including relatively rare options such as Open Sunday, Fireplaces, and Visitors on Expense Accounts.
Don't waste your time if: You're not a fan of the Zagat approach, which bases reviews and numerical ratings on standardized surveys filled out by volunteer diners.
What our CEOs had to say: "Great searching ability that is very logical." "Gives you the quick skinny on a huge inventory of restaurants. Bookmark it."
John Diehl, CEO and president of PrairieComm Inc., frequently dines in major cities worldwide. His company, based in Rolling Meadows, Ill., develops chip sets and embedded software for wireless devices. His favorite menu choice: Chicago-style pizza.
As a longtime New Yorker, Jill S. Gabbe knows all too well the importance of finding just the right spot for a business meal. Gabbe is a partner at the Gabbe Group, a Manhattan consulting company specializing in public relations, marketing, and brand development. Her favorite menu choice: elaborate chocolate desserts.
Rob Marler viewed our sites both as a frequent diner and as a Web executive. Marler is president of DirectWireless.com, which sells cell-phone accessories online and in its store in Maitland, Fla. His favorite menu choice: seafood.
Bob Silver is president and founder of the Silver Co. of Seattle and Orange County, Calif., a public-relations agency serving high-tech companies. Silver, who lives on Washington's Bainbridge Island, believes he's found the perfect recipe for pepper-crusted grilled king salmon. His favorite menu choice: crab cakes.
Anne Stuart is a senior writer at Inc. Technology.
The savvy entrepreneur's guide to online dining sites
| Content |
|Citysearch||Extensive listings; nightlife, arts, and entertainment info||Little for suburbanites||Domestic business travelers to major cities||Mostly good|
|CuisineNet||Good search engine; customer reviews||Skimpy listings; some outdated information||Locals, some travelers, amateur restaurant critics||Poor to excellent|
|Dine.com||Extensive listings, including small cities; customer reviews||Volume can be overwhelming; some listings skimpy on details||Domestic business travelers||Good|
|DineSite.com||Small-city listings; additional content on wine selection||Too little color; content could be livelier and more current||Domestic business travelers, amateur critics||Mostly good|
|Fodors.com||International listings; links to other travel pages||Limited, somewhat predictable listings||Frequent leisure travelers (domestic and abroad)||Good|
|Food.com||Good design; online ordering for takeout and delivery||Unrefined search capability provides too many results||Locals who want to order food online||Fair to excellent|
|Menus.com||Online reservations; complete restaurant menus||Inconsistent amount and quality of information across entries||Anyone; intermediate Web users||Poor to excellent|
|Huge database; good search capability; online reservations||Odd design; tough to navigate at first||Anyone||Fair to good|
|Zagat.com||Powerful search capability; customer reviews||Refining search can be tricky at first||Fans of Zagat diner-survey format; travelers||Mostly good|
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