iPhone 3G is out to lunch, and dinner for that matter

The new iPhone’s GPS service has brought forth a variety of location-based apps in available in the App Store. One of the most natural fits for this type of service is the ability to locate nearby places of interest, such as restaurants. Today, we’ll tell you about two very useful apps for finding good eats, and both are available now in the App Store as free downloads. We’ll also tell you about another free app, this one’s web-based, that condiments compliments the native apps. Each is unique in its own way, offering a strength not found in the others. We find that having all three available on our iPhone 3G is better than any one of them, until of course, someone can create the killer app that combines the best of all three into a single iPhone app.

First, we’ll tell you about the one that is probably the least useful of the three, but the most fun to use. UrbanSpoon offers an interface that resembles a slot machine. You flick each roller to select a preference for food type and price. Then you give your iPhone a gentle shake causing the rollers spin while the GPS figures out your current location. Then, just like the magic 8 ball, UrbanSpoon dishes out a nearby restaurant that meets your criteria. Don’t like the results? Shake again to get another dining choice, and so on.

UrbanSpoon’s clever use of the iPhone’s accelerometer combined with location awareness makes this app our top pick for creativeness. However, the one thing UrbanSpoon doesn’t tell you is how good the food is at each restaurant. They do allow users to rate restaurants but they have not achieved a critical mass of users to make this rating system trustworthy. This is where our next app really shines, using only one word to harvest the wisdom of the crowd. Yelp.

Need we say more? Probably not, because Yelp is practically a household name as a go-to source of ratings and reviews for all kinds of products and services, including restaurants and bars. It’s not surprising that Yelp’s review system is so reliable given that they’ve had a several-year head start as a web site, with a large user base contributing reviews and ratings.

Yelp’s iPhone app lets you drill down to find restaurants that have been reviewed and rated by the massive Yelp community. We’re actually surprised at how many people will take the time to write such detailed and thoughful restaurant reviews, but hey, everyone’s a critic. Yelp’s iPhone app is also location aware making it a breeze to find places to eat or drink near your current proximity. Each restaurant listing has a cumulative rating right at the top, followed by the phone number that you can tap-to-call from the iPhone. It would be really great if you could see if the restaurant had any tables currently available, but that’s where our third app comes in.

Believe it or not, there is a free service that lets you see if a particular restaurant has any available tables. It also allows you book your own reservations, and even gives you discounts at participating eateries. We’ve been using the desktop web version of OpenTable for years, and we are elated to have this finally available on our iPhones.

OpenTable lists available seating at over 8,500 restaurants across the U.S. and reserves over 3 million seats per month. The newly released mobile interface works perfectly for iPhone and iPod touch users looking to book a table while on the go. Because OpenTable is a web app, it can’t offer features like location awareness or motion detection like the previously mentioned apps. However, for sheer utility of finding and booking tables, OpenTable can’t be beat.

And here’s a tip for all you diners out there thinking that it may be easier to simply call a restaurant to book a table instead of trying to do it yourself using OpenTable. Many restaurants that use OpenTable’s reservation system will actually block out a certain number of seats that can only be booked from the OpenTable web site. Additionally, you can use OpenTable to reserve your seats during restaurant off hours when you can’t get through to a human at the front desk. So anytime you think you may be out-of-luck getting a seat at your favorite restaurant, don’t forget to check OpenTable before giving up.

As you can see, the apps from UrbanSpoon, Yelp, and Open Table complement each other extremely well, even though you have to use them separately. With location awareness, both UrbanSpoon and Yelp offer easy ways to find nearby restaurants, you just have to ask yourself whether you want to find them by shaking, or tapping. Yelp’s crowd sourced rating system can’t be beat for filter out the good restaurants from the bad. And Open Table offers a great utility for reserving those tables. Each has it’s own strength, and deserves a place on your home screen.

Have fun locating nearby restaurants
UrbanSpoon (App Store)

Find only the good restaurants
Yelp (App Store)

Make reservations without waiting on the phone
Open Table (Web site)

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