Compass to good grub

You do not need a showdown between celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay and Singapore's best hawkers to know where the best local cuisine is.

There are apps for that.

Food recommendation apps are designed to answer one question: What should you eat today?

That is the question that Mr Dixon Chan, 27, asked when he created Burpple with his co-founders, Ms Elisha Ong, 27, and Mr Daniel Hum, 25.

"We were using food review sites such as Yelp. But when we are in a restaurant, we still do not know exactly what to eat," said Mr Chan.

There were extensive food reviews available, he noted, but too many of them focused on negative service experiences instead of on what really mattered - the food.

Burpple was launched in 2011. Since early this year, the app has received 500,000 photo reviews, and Mr Chan projects they will cross the one million mark by the end of this year.

This is the strength behind apps such as Burpple, which gather like-minded food lovers to post reviews of their favourite food haunts to share them with others.

Interior designer Wendy Koh, 31, said she relies on Hungrygowhere and other similar apps to decide the menu when she eats out. Such reviews, she said, give her a sense of what is good to eat.

"It is especially important when I am not familiar with the area," said Ms Koh.

Recommendations of the best food in the area may not be enough to capture consumer attention. So, SK Planet, a subsidiary of the telecommunications company SK Telecom, which recently launched its Pickat app in Singapore, also showcases fashion and lifestyle favourites for users.

Its food recommendations come from its own team, food bloggers and user-generated reviews.

"What's more, the application features a coupon function which updates and enables users to enjoy the latest available location-based discounts and freebies from Pickat's participating merchants," said SK Planet's Mr Nelson Wee, managing director of its South-east Asia regional headquarters.

But how accurate are these food recommendation apps?

Digital Life heads down to a food centre and Dempsey Road eateries to check out six free food apps and explore their bonus features.


Burpple

Burpple's founders call this app the Instagram for food, and they are quite spot on.

Though it is a recommendation tool, its real purpose is to build a social network featuring different cuisines. Like Instagram, Burpple uses photography to tell the story.

The user interface is split into three categories - Feed, Explore and Journal. In the Feed tab, you can see mouth-watering photos of what other Burpple users are eating.

Select an image and it will reveal more information; a quick review of the food and its location. You reburp instead of retweet your favourite food photo to those following your Burpple account. Posting the same photo on your Facebook and Twitter accounts is also possible.

In the Explore tab, you can find food recommendations based on different situations. What's Good Nearby, as the name suggest, detects your current location and guides you to the nearest delectables via an album of photos. At the Bedok North food centre, it hit the mark and recommended my favourite minced meat and meatball noodles.

At upscale Dempsey Road, it was hard to resist stepping into every one of the recommended restaurants and wine places. For the most part, Burpple does well to recommend the best places available, but you need to be your own judge as these are mostly user-generated reviews.

The Burpple team curates the content and categorises them further into themes, such as the most popular photos based on the number of reburps, and sections for coffee and brunch lovers. On a budget? It recommends $10 meals that will not burn a hole in the wallet.

If you are on a diet, steer clear of Burpple. It is futile to resist the drool-inducing recommendations and photos in this app.

Tech specs

Price: Free
Platform: iOS, Android

Rating

Features: 3
Design: 4
Performance 4
Overall: 4


Chope

Making reservations can be frustrating when you have to keep repeating yourself, or get put on hold for many minutes on the phone.

This is where Chope steps in.

This is first and foremost an app for foodies to make reservations at their favourite restaurants. Of course, this requires you to either sign up for a Chope account or log in with your Facebook details.

Navigating the app is simple, with four tabs to choose from.

The latest restaurants are listed under the New tab. The A-Z tab provides the full listing in alphabetical order.

Need a tip? Select Nearby and the app will suggest eateries in the vicinity. Alternatively, select Search and enter either a restaurant name or search by location.

Each entry provides basic information such as the type of cuisine, opening hours and a location pinned on Google Maps.

Quick snippets on the favourite items and the hype behind the restaurant by the Chope team are also listed, giving you enough information to make a decision.

On top of every restaurant listing is a Book Now button. Unlike phone reservations, booking through the app is dead simple. You can key in the date, time and number of people in your party.

Dempsey Road had no shortage of restaurant recommendations and I did not even have to search too hard. But when I looked for "hawker food", I was directed only to restaurants at shopping malls nearby, most of them about 1km away.

Making a reservation is easy with this app. Understandably, it is mostly useful for restaurants. Hawker food choices are limited.

Tech specs

Price: Free
Platform: iOS, Android

Rating

Features: 3
Design: 3
Performance 3
Overall: 3


Hungrygowhere

Before apps became my weapon of choice on a food hunt, I relied on the Hungrygowhere website for its user reviews, location and contact details.

These are now available on the mobile app, with a user interface that is much easier to navigate than the website.

Avoid launching the app when you are ravenous, as the first thing you will see are droolworthy photos.

Click on the Featured tab and check out why a featured restaurant is getting rave reviews from the Hungrygowhere community.

There are more themes to explore, including the usual nearby eats and new food openings. Try not to take the hottest places literally, because it refers to popularity rather than the quantum of spicy dishes.

Want to make your stomach growl even more? Go into food shots and torture yourself with more food photos before lunch or dinner.

Hungrygowhere's listings are meticulously curated not just by cuisine, but by delectability, value, ambience and service.

User reviews are listed to give a sense of how well an eatery is rated, though some opinions could use a pinch of salt.

Each entry is generously detailed. Ratings aside, opening hours, phone numbers and websites are listed. The location is pinned on Google Maps, though this shows up in a separate window and not the main listing, and only when you click on the address.

The app has a booking system for restaurants. Hawker food is listed along with the swankier restaurants, but what surprised me is the contact details.

For example, a mobile number was listed for my favourite fried oyster omelette at Bedok North, and I was able to order by phone before I got there.

Hungrygowhere is an informative app that spoils you with so many choices and details.

Tech specs

Price: Free
Platform: iOS, Android

Rating

Features: 4
Design: 4
Performance 4
Overall: 4


OpenRice Singapore

Call me shallow if you like, but one of the first things on which I judge an app is its user interface.

This, I feel, is paramount in making a good impression.

And the OpenRice app flunked.

As soon as I launched the app, I was shocked by the bare design of the user interface. Some might say that less is more, but the main menu is devoid of eye-catching food photos. Instead, it offers you five options in the form of logos.

Advanced Search takes you to a search menu that details all the parameters - area, cuisine, type of restaurant and price range.

The functionality of the app is undeniable but usability is another matter. Its dropdown menus are small, making it hard to choose an option from a list.

Nearby recommendations, which included hawker food and restaurant fare, are accurate. But the app takes up to 10 seconds to produce the list, compared with three to five seconds for the other apps.

The main photo for each recommendation is mostly of the stall itself. This may help you identify an unfamiliar place, but not the food it serves. The app has food photos, but these are hidden in the photo tab, and their presentation is second rate compared with those of other similar apps.

The Coupon option is a comprehensive listing of the deals available, and these are reflected in their respective entries.

But unlike Pickat's coupon system which offers it to Pickat users, the coupons in OpenRice are actually listings of discounts offered with banks such as American Express or CIMB. Without the right credit cards, these coupons are useless.

Despite its features and comprehensive listings, OpenRice's mundane user interface does not make it a savoury app for food lovers.

Tech specs

Price: Free
Platform: iOS, Android

Rating

Features: 3
Design: 2
Performance 2
Overall: 2


Pickat

Though Pickat's user interface is not as aesthetically pleasing as those of Hungrygowhere or Burpple, it does stand its ground with its features.

The search bar is strategically placed at the top and your current location is listed below the bar.

Themes are huge in Pickat. They are mostly generated by users who create or select a theme based on their food choices. You can also search by category.

Pickat is, however, more than a food recommendation app. Other categories, such as fashion, beauty and spa, indicate that this app is just as apt in terms of lifestyle recommendations.

Pickat's developer SK Planet works with food and lifestyle bloggers, such as misstamchiak and missuschewy, to recommend picks for Pickat users, while it builds its own content and relies on more user-generated reviews to bolster its database.

It has got the basics correct, as I was able to find the usual suspects at the Bedok North food centre and restaurants such as The White Rabbit at Dempsey Road using the app. The database is still somewhat limited, though it is understandable as the app was launched only last month. Photos are uploaded mainly by users. Unlike Hungrygowhere or Chope, it offers neither a booking system nor details such as phone numbers to make a phone reservation. The difference for Pickat is the integration of a coupon system with the vendors it features. Though the concept is not new, this one is well thought out, to reward Pickat users and to encourage regular usage to find more deals.

Pickat's food database is still a work in progress but it is off to a good start. Throw in more food coupons and it is a match for any of the established food apps.

Tech specs

Price: Free
Platform: iOS, Android

Rating

Features: 3
Design: 3
Performance 3
Overall: 3


Yelp

Food choices are less likely to appear in Yelp than in other apps, mainly because it is designed more as a business listing than a food review app.

But that does not mean it is any less useful than apps designed with food hunters in mind. The main user interface gives you instant access to nearby locations and bookmarks for businesses that you frequent.

The check-in option is not just for bragging rights. Checking in at certain locations will unlock an offer from the business concerned, though I noticed that there are not too many offers at the moment.

A list of categories, including restaurants, bars and coffee joints, is presented when you select the Nearby option on the main menu.

Listed venues can be further filtered depending on the distance from your current location and whether it is open for business.

Like the other apps, this one offers ratings which are based on user reviews. Venue details are rather hit or miss. For example, the opening hours were displayed for Food For Thought in Queen Street, and The White Rabbit in Harding Road was marked as closed when I searched for it on its rest day.

But for some other locations, including Loof, the rooftop bar at Odeon Towers, no opening hours were indicated.

Food recommendations are mostly limited to restaurants. In the Bedok North area, Yelp did not recommend the famed minced meat noodles or fried oyster omelette when I was near the food stalls.

But it has a nifty feature called Monocle, which uses the phone's location setting and shows you where a restaurant is via the phone's camera. This gives you a general sense of where you should travel, but with such a limited list, this feature is unable to unleash its full potential.

Yelp is more useful for businesses to hawk their wares online, rather than for diners to find recommendations for the best food.

Tech specs

Price: Free
Platform: iOS, Android

Rating

Features: 3
Design: 3
Performance 2
Overall: 3

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