OpenTable.com, a San Francisco-based Web site offers free reservations at more than 1,800 restaurants in roughly 50 American cities.
The service is one of many online destinations for those who want to find good food while on the road or at home. And like restaurants themselves, the Web sites with the greatest ambitions frequently fall short, while those content to serve a niche succeed nicely.
OpenTable is a case in point. The Web site makes no claim to offer authoritative dining advice, or to feature an exhaustive list of dining establishments. Instead, it concentrates most of its efforts on 15 major cities that feature hundreds of restaurants to choose from, with other places like Houston or Baltimore offering a dozen or two selections.
Other Web sites, most notably RestaurantRow.com, allow diners to make reservations online, but OpenTable is free, while RestaurantRow charges customers a membership fee of $8 a month, or $5 a reservation. And while RestaurantRow customers must wait for e-mail confirmation of their reservations, on OpenTable the reservation is confirmed immediately on the Web site.
OpenTable users can also browse by neighborhood, price or cuisine type, and send invitations to others by e-mail to join the dining party, along with maps and directions.
According to Thomas Layton, OpenTable’s chief executive, the company secures reservations on behalf of about 390,000 people each month, more than 10 times the number served two years ago. The Web site will list nearly 3,000 restaurants by the end of the year, he said.
While Mr. Layton said the site sought to list only high-quality restaurants, OpenTable does not carry reviews. For those seeking such guidance, one of the more useful sites is www.zagat.com, the online arm of the popular survey book series.
The site covers 30,000 places in 68 cities, most of them in the United States. (The international coverage is concentrated in Paris, Toronto, London and Tokyo.) Unlike most restaurant review sites, Zagat charges subscriptions, $20 annually or $4 monthly.
But for nonpaying customers, Zagat does offer appetizers. Users can search the site’s database by neighborhood, by cuisine, or alphabetically, but they get no reviews or ratings.
The extra $4 buys a wealth of information. Subscribers can see reviews and ratings of each restaurant’s food, service and décor; in addition, they can select numerous attributes that interest them. For instance, they can search for Japanese restaurants in Midtown Manhattan, with food ratings higher than 25 (out of 30) and a ”child friendly” atmosphere, and the search engine will return several options.
For those with a taste for vox populi reviews, but who also like professional assessments, Citysearch.com is a good choice. Actually a network of city-specific Web sites, it covers 16 cities thoroughly; there is also some information about 23 other places.
The sites, which focus chiefly on restaurant and entertainment information, evaluate places with a statistical mix of user reviews, editors’ reviews and the number of times that readers have searched for that particular establishment. One of the more useful features allows travelers to specify a location in a city before searching for restaurants. (Select New Location in the Your Location bar near the top of the page.)
Narrowing the Field
From there, users can search for Thai restaurants, for instance, and receive a list showing the nearest and most highly rated selections. Clicking through to some of those restaurants, users will find an online reservation feature operated by OpenTable. Similarly, OpenTable offers links on its restaurant-specific pages for CitySearch reviews, and those written by Gayot.com.
Gayot too is worth a visit, if you prefer polished, professional evaluations. Originally a publisher of restaurant reviews that has now expanded into travel-related reviews, Gayot requires its online readers to fill out a quick registration form before they can read the critiques.
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