Online restaurant guides

Deciding where to eat on Friday night? Check out a restaurant guide website.
 
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  • Updated:29 Sep 2008
 

01 .Introduction

Laptop - pizza

In brief

  • A vast improvement on trawling the phone book, online restaurant guides can be a great help when planning a meal out.
  • Some guides give you not only names, addresses and cuisine, but also menus, ambience, photos and reviews.
  • In the spirit of the ‘Hats’ awarded to great restaurants by The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guides, we’re awarding 'Mice' to the better online restaurant guides.

Going out to dinner? Wondering if that Italian joint on the corner is any good? Will Aunty Vegetarian be able to eat anything? Online restaurant guides can be a great help when planning a meal out.

Some give you not only names, addresses and cuisine, but also menus, ambience photos and reviews. So when you're dining with friends who've a penchant for Swiss-Malay fusion, or you're visiting another town or city, online restaraunt guides are an ideal place to start.

But which ones offer the most useful information, and how do you know which reviews you can trust? To find out, we chose 11 reasonably popular restaurants from the state capitals, ranging from cheapish to very expensive. The information on each restaurant was assessed for how recent it was, the breadth and depth of coverage, and accuracy of details such as address, phone number and website/email.

We then looked up major regional centres throughout Australia, including some with well-regarded restaurants, and recorded the coverage of these centres. To see how up-to-date the sites were, we looked up a restaurant that closed during the test period to see how long this news would take to filter through. Finally we searched for all restaurants in particular suburbs to see how many venues each site came up with, and checked the details were current.

And the winners are

  • Eatability                           MouseMouseMouse
  • Mietta's                             MouseMouseMouse
  • YourRestaurants                 MouseMouse
  • De Groots Best Restaurants MouseMouse
  • EatingWA                          Mouse
  • Menulog                           Mouse

Please note: this information was current as of September 2008 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


 
 

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02.What makes a good guide?

 

First and foremost, information should be up-to-date and accurate. For this, most online restaurant guides rely on restaurants to manage their own listings, and for diners to alert the site manager to out-of-date information. Lists of recently opened eateries are also useful.

Other desirable features include:

  • Comprehensive coverage of restaurants and cafés.
  • Useful information Address, phone number, website link, cuisine, opening hours, BYO/licensing information, number of seats (to give you an idea of how big the restaurant is), an indication of prices (such as a range for main meal prices). High-end restaurants might include also the name of the chef.
  • Menus are very useful if they’re up-to-date. A link to the restaurant’s own website, complete with menu, is an alternative (and chances are it will be more up-to-date).
  • Nearby restaurants, cafés and bars Some sites suggest these, which is great if you want to know where to go for drinks before dinner or for coffee and dessert.
  • Reviews They should include the day, date and meal type (breakfast, lunch, dinner) of the visit, as well as the date the review was posted. Reviews of traditionally busy nights (Friday or Saturday, Valentine’s Day) versus quieter nights can give different impressions of service.
  • Phone info Some sites offer to send details to your mobile phone, which saves you writing it down, and you can forward info to friends.
  • Versatility when searching You might want to find a particular cuisine, or a selection of restaurants in a particular suburb (including surrounding suburbs). You might be after a particular ambience (lively, romantic) or fancy water views or outside dining. Many sites offer most or all of these search options.
  • Independence Most online restaurant guides allow restaurants to list with them free of charge. Revenue for the websites comes from restaurants seeking priority placements and advertising (usually ads are not for restaurants). Does paying to be featured get you a better review? We didn’t necessarily find that to be true — featured restaurants tended to have mixed reviews as often as any other restaurant. The exception is websites that mostly give positive reviews anyway.

03.Reading between the lines

 

Melbourne foodies might be surprised to learn that their city’s best food comes not from the Good Food Guide’s three-hatters like Rockpool or Vue de Monde. Rather, according to one online guide, it’s the little-known Shangri-La Inn, a Malaysian restaurant located in a suburban shopping centre. The one person who reviewed it had a good time and rated it accordingly — a perfect five out of five.


But does that mean the Shangri-La Inn offers the best dining experience in Melbourne? Is it the foodie heaven, or indeed Shangri La, of fine dining? Reviews we found on other sites were warm and positive, but somehow lacked the superlatives of reviews for other great eateries.

Conversely, do Rockpool (scoring 3.6/5 on the same online guide) and Vue de Monde (3.8/5) deserve their comparatively mediocre ratings, or have just a couple of less-than-gruntled diners pushed their ratings south?

Whose review?

You’ll find various kinds of review in restaurant guides, including critics’ reviews, editorial overviews, reviews from the dining public and a restaurant’s own overviews. Whose opinions you can rely on will depend not only on the integrity of the review, but also on what you want from a restaurant.

It should already be obvious from the example above that the review of one diner shouldn’t be regarded as gospel — especially if that one person’s only eaten one meal at the reviewed place (or is a relative of the owner!). The more reviews the merrier — there are lots of reasons for people having different opinions of a restaurant, including different expectations, the staff on the day, the food ordered (and of course subjectivity is a major player here) and the day of the visit (Fridays and Saturdays are likely to be much busier than other nights, while quiet nights can lack buzz and atmosphere).

We like Eatability’s approach, where reviewers are encouraged to use the same name each time, and you can read all the reviews by a particular person to see what they’ve said about other places — perhaps some you’ve been to — and build up a picture of the kind of reviewer they are (overly harsh or overly generous, for example).

While you might take a single review from a critic more seriously than one from a single ‘lay’ diner, critics’ reviews are subject to their own bias issues. It’s widely acknowledged that well-known critics receive special attention from cooking and service staff, which could give them an overly favourable impression. This probably helps explain why other patrons visiting restaurants with lots of hype and hats may end up feeling a little underwhelmed.

On the other hand, critics can be more picky about things that other diners wouldn’t notice. Their single review could also be a little old, and many things could have changed since the time of writing. This is why we like Mietta’s approach of using critics’ reviews from as many sources as possible, often (though unfortunately not always) including very recent ones.

04.Profiles - The CHOICE Mouse Awards

 

The best

In the spirit of the ‘Hats’ awarded to great restaurants by The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guides, we’re awarding Mice to the better online restaurant guides.

Eatability

Eatabilitywww.eatability.com.au
MouseMouseMouse

About Eatability “It's great hearing from critics but Eatability gives you the inside information from everyday patrons.”

Covers Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Perth, Adelaide and Canberra, as well as regional centres in the corresponding states.

Search by Name, suburb, area, cuisine, venue (café, bar), atmosphere, special diet, special features.

Who provides information Restaurants can list free, and provide as much information as they wish. Reviewers are members of the public.

What we like about it

  • Its popularity means lots of reviews, and this means you get a broad spectrum of opinion and also clear points of consensus.
  • It provides numerical ratings and written reviews. It notes how many people have contributed to the ratings, and if there are only a few ratings, the correspondingly less reliable overall rating is marked accordingly.
  • Reviewers are encouraged to use the same name each time, and you can read all reviews for a particular person.
  • Links to other restaurants and bars nearby, and other restaurants in the same city with similar cuisine.

Room for improvement This site will get even better when reviews for restaurants in recently added cities start coming in.

Mietta’s Australian Restaurants, Cafés, Bars, Food and Wine

Miettaswww.miettas.com.au
MouseMouseMouse

About Mietta’s “It gives reasons to visit [restaurants] — not reasons to stay away.”

Covers All capitals and also regional areas, with over 7000 venues on its books.

Search by Name, suburb, area, state, cuisine, price, size, Mietta’s awards for food, wine and ambience, and features such as child-friendly or outside seating.

Who provides information As well as its own reviews written by industry professionals, it adds reviews from reputable sources such as the Good Food Guide, Gourmet Traveller and major newspapers. There’s no input from the dining public.

What we like about it

  • The best of the ‘critic only’ sites, it’s quite comprehensive in the breadth (number of restaurants) and depth (details) of its coverage.
  • It’s particularly good if you want to see what critics say about a restaurant you have in mind.
  • All reviews are sourced and dated, so you know who said what and when.
  • Reflecting its mission statement,Mietta’s reviews tend to highlight the good points about restaurants, adopting an “if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing” approach to reviews. On the other hand …

Room for improvement Sometimes restaurants deserve a harsh word or two. Also, some of the reviews are a few years old, making them a little out of date.

 

Runners up

yourRestaurants

Your restaurantswww.yourrestaurants.com.au
MouseMouse

About yourRestaurants As well as a restaurant guide, it aims to help you organise your dining out life with facilities to put restaurants on your personal “favourites” and “wish list” lists.

Covers All of Australia, including regional centres.

Search by State, area, suburb, cuisine, opening days/hours, various features (including BYO, licensed, vegetarian options, wheelchair access, water views).

Who provides the information Restaurants provide the basic information. As well as diner reviews from members of the public, there are general reviews provided by freelance writers (who aren’t necessarily career restaurant critics).

What we like about it

  • It contains just about everything you need to know about a restaurant.
  • Provides the day, date and time (lunch, dinner, etc) of the review.
  • Nearby bars, restaurants and cinemas are listed on each restaurant’s page.
  • It’s associated with yourTime restaurants mobile phone web service, for restaurant info on the go.
  • Clear, uncluttered page layout.
  • It encourages honest reviews, even if negative — but not if they’re libelous, defamatory or abusive.

Room for improvement It doesn’t have as many diner reviews as Eatability, especially in NSW, Queensland and Victoria, where Eatability is strongest. On the other hand, it’s better than Eatability for information on the ACT, NT, SA, Tasmania and WA. More reviews would make this site great.

De Groots Best Restaurants

www.bestrestaurants.com.au De Groots Best Restaurants
MouseMouse

About Best Restaurants It claims to be the first national web-based restaurant guide, starting in 1996. You probably won’t find your local pizza joint on this site — as its name suggests, it’s strongest on the mid to high-end restaurants, though it does cover café-style places with good-quality food.

Covers All of Australia, including regional centres.

Search by Suburb or area, price range, cuisine. The advanced search lets you select for places that are “accessible by seaplane”, “in a winery” or “suitable for hens’ nights” (though not bucks’ nights, interestingly) and other such dining nuances.

Information provided by Reviews are provided by staff writers. Diners are invited to give their reviews (which the site edits for clarity and to avoid defamatory comments) but this appears to be rarely taken up.

What we like about it

  • Reviews are professional.
  • The site tells you almost everything you need to know about a place with a minimum of fuss and clutter.
  • You can get restaurant details sent by SMS.
  • Excellent advanced search when you’re looking for inspiration.

Room for improvement More than one review would be good, especially since the review can be a few years old. Also, the date of reviews isn’t always noted .

 

Honourable mentions

EatingWA

Eating WAwww.eatingwa.com.au
Mouse

About EatingWA The creators’ idea was to provide a restaurant guide that’s “simple, informative and stylish”.

Covers WA (though it’s linked to OzEating.com.au, which covers other states)

Search by Suburb (and surrounding suburbs), cuisine and style of dining (including al fresco, bistro, family, buffet).

Who provides the information Restaurants can list free. Reviews and star ratings are provided by patrons, though sometimes there’s also an editorial blurb.

What we like about it

  • Detailed information about the food is encouraged and reviewers oblige.
  • Restaurants will sometimes respond to people’s reviews, putting forward their side of the story.

Room for improvement The editors choose which reviews to publish, and make it clear they’re not likely to publish negative reviews — something people have commented on to us. We tested the theory by submitting a negative review, and it didn’t get published. The editors subsequently explained they have a system in place that aims to prevent unfair treatment of a restaurant, and told us why our review wasn't published.

Menulog

Menulogwww.menulog.com.au
Mouse

About Menulog It claims to be Australia’s newest and most comprehensive eating-out guide, covering both dine-in and takeaway services.

Covers All of Australia, including regional centres.

Search by Suburb or area, type of venue (restaurant, café, pub, bar), ambience, price, cuisine.

Who provides the information Restaurants provide basic information and menus. Excerpts of reviews from critics are published, as well as diner reviews.

What we like about it

  • It tries to include menus where they’re available, and dates them.
  • It has a lot of restaurants on its books.
  • Apart from providing information about restaurants, one of Menulog’s main purposes is to provide an online ordering service for home delivered or takeaway (pick-up) food. You can place your order any time and specify the time (and day) it’s required, and all without having to shout over the phone at people in noisy restaurants. There are also reviews for the various aspects of this service.

Room for improvement

  • The page layout for the dine-in restaurant information is cluttered and spread over a number of different pages.
  • We’re also sceptical of this rationale for not providing a full review: “This restaurant has also been reviewed by the following reputable critics. In Menulog's opinion, multiple reviews are usually an indication that the restaurant is popular and worth trying yourself.”

The rest

There are some potentially-great websites out there with really useful features that are let down mainly by the lack of information for each restaurant. As these websites get more and more reviews, they’ll become more popular, and get more reviews and become more popular… and so on.

Whether or not they’ll reach that critical mass — when there are excellent sites already out there — remains to be seen.

Some of the other sites we looked at are:

And yet another way of getting reviews...

Why not try googling a restaurant's name? There’s a cyberjungle of foodie bloggers out there, and chances are you’ll find someone who’s been to it. Some of the blogs we looked at were pretty comprehensive and included good-quality pictures of the food and well written and apparently well-considered reviews.

You might find one or two favourites in whose dining footsteps you can follow — or not. It’s also a good way to check up on new restaurants that haven’t made it to the mainstream guides.