- Knows a ton of restaurants
- Nice built-in comments, menu, calling, and directions options
- Doesn't always provide good recommendations (a steakhouse for a vegetarian?)
- Search doesn't work as well as it should--sometimes doesn't find locations it already knows about
- The smaller the place you live, the less helpful it may be
Where to go for dinner? It's a common problem, one that's often solved by going to the same old place. For those seeking new ideas for restaurants and nightlife spots, there are a number of iOS-based recommendation tools. One of them is Alfred, which attempts to suggest places you'll like based on what you already like. But Alfred needs to get a little smarter before he should make all your dining plans.
Working with Alfred
Like other recommendation apps, Alfred begins by learning what you like. In this case, the app does that by asking a series of questions such as "Your friend from out of town is visiting. Where do you take him or her for dinner?" Type in your answer, select a restaurant from the list provided, and then Alfred guesses some other nearby locations you may also like. Tap those you do and continue. This process, which you need to repeat over and over until Alfred "knows" you and your tastes, teaches Alfred about you. Using this info, the app can then make suggestions for lunch, dinner, desert, coffee, and other restaurants.
Tap on the meal you want a recommendation for and a series of suggestions pop up. You can rate the suggestion and tap on it for more information. When you do this, a bounty of useful information is revealed, including comments from other users, a copy of the menu (where available), directions from your location, and the ability to call the location.
If you've connected Alfred to your Facebook account, and some of your Facebook friends have done the same, you can even have Alfred make a recommendation based on the tastes of everyone who will be going to the meal together, which is a pretty neat option.
The basics of how Alfred learns about you are solid. The app has a pretty comprehensive listing of locations (though some places that are relatively new don't appear. For instance, Veggie Galaxy in Somerville, MA, a great vegetarian/vegan diner, has been open for 2 months as of this writing, but doesn't appear in Alfred) and is even able to find places in Boston even though I'm using it in Providence. So, its ability to learn about you is good. Unfortunately, its recommendations need some work.
Steering You Wrong
The recommendations that Alfred makes are very strange indeed. Despite listing a number of vegetarian/vegan and alternative restaurants as my favorites multiple times, and never once including a steakhouse in my tastes, the first suggestion I got for a lunch venue was indeed a steakhouse. In fact, Alfred was 85% sure I would like it. It was 100% wrong.
You can filter the recommendations to narrow down the options, but even that doesn't always help. When I did that--setting the filter to vegetarian restaurant--Alfred found just 1 restaurant within 10 miles and 1 other within 25 miles. While these may be the only all-vegetarian places nearby, they're far from the only ones to have extensive vegetarian offerings. Not being able to find a place that has a ton of vegetarian food, but isn't exclusively vegetarian, means Alfred isn't going to show you a lot of places you might love to eat. (Ditto, for instance, gluten-free foods. I don't imagine there are many 100% gluten-free restaurants, but in this all-or-nothing filter, it appears that there's nowhere in Rhode Island with gluten-free food, which simply isn't true.)
Separate from the automated recommendations, you can also search for places that meet specific criteria. Unfortunately, this feature doesn't fare much better. When I searched specifically for a vegetarian restaurant within 25 miles, the first result was that steakhouse again, followed by 2 burger places and another steakhouse. Noticeable absent was Rhode Island's best all-vegetarian restaurant, a place that I'd already told Alfred a number of times that I like. Another search, this time for Korean food, turned up no results even though while teaching Alfred about my tastes it already had a listing for the nearest restaurant.
Too Much Home Cooking
Alfred may also not be of much use to you if you don't live in a major city. I've lived in Providence--not a huge city; just 175,000 or so people--for since 2003 and know the place pretty well. As a result, Alfred wasn't able to recommend too many places I hadn't heard of. Perhaps 15% of the recommendations were new to me, but none of them met my particular dietary needs--vegetarian and with at least some gluten-free options.
In a larger city where new restaurants open all the time and where it's harder to keep on top of the food scene, an app like this might be a lot more useful. But if you live in a small city, or anywhere else with a smaller population, Alfred may not be able to suggest places you're not already familiar with.
The Bottom Line
There's a lot of potential in Alfred. The fundamentals of how you teach the app about you, and the information is sometimes offers, are very solid. But it faces some serious problems in search. If it can't accurately return search results, or realize that a restaurant with a dozen vegetarian dishes may be just as good an option as an all-vegetarian place, it won't be of much use. But if its developers can improve these problems, Alfred may indeed make a great dining companion.
What You'll Need
To use Alfred, you'll need an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad running iOS 4 or higher.