The Irish bar-restaurant at Palm Beach International Airport looked inviting to Dan Gellert, but it was located before the security clearance checkpoint. So, to make sure he had enough time to eat before catching his flight, Gellert made a logical choice: Clear security first, then find a restaurant near the gate. Gellert figured he'd surely find at least a few tempting eateries on the other side of the checkpoint.
He figured wrong. All he found was a Burger King and a pizza parlor. Gellert choose the pizza parlor and had a terrible meal.
His experience is all too common for many travelers, particularly those new to a specific airport: It's not easy finding out what restaurants are available until it's too late and you're stuck at a mediocre one near your gate.
At Your Service on Your Smartphone
Airport websites list restaurants, but you won't find too many reviews nor do most travelers peruse an airport's website in advance of their trip.
Gellert figured there had to be a better way to improve the airport experience. And that's what his GateGuru app for the iPhone attempts to do.
Similar to the popular Zagat restaurant guides to cities, GateGuru offers restaurant reviews at 105 airports, mostly in the U.S. and Canada. Some 25,000 contributors have so far written reviews and rated establishments on a one- to five-star basis. The app also offers reviews of airport lounges, spas and shops, and even ATM machines at various airports.
GateGuru doesn't, however, aggregate the reviews of respondents into one concise listing like Zagat. After the overall star rating, a user has to scroll down and read some of the reviews to get a fuller sense of the establishment, some of which have only a few reviews. In another confusing feature, many of the ATM machines get differing ratings, but without any explanation for why one machine from the same bank is better than another. Still, it's pretty handy to know where the ATMs are located at an airport.
Just Like At Home
Despite some limitations, GateGuru can be a nifty assistant for an airport traveler on the run. The biggest problem is that the free app is available only for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch at this point, but Gellert plans versions for BlackBerry and Android phones sometime next year.
A Manhattan resident, Gellert is so convinced about the viability of GateGuru that he went from investing in other people's companies as a venture capitalist to running his own startup. He launched GateGuru last December. He says the goal is to make the airport experience similar to what people do in their own neighborhood. "You quickly learn the good and bad restaurants and merchants," he says.
But Gellert says that culling process doesn't work so well at airports. For one thing, he says, there are always plenty of first-timers or customers who just don't know any better, which allows the worst establishments to stay in business.
Try the "Irish Car Wreck"
So, which places are among those with the highest ratings from GateGuru travelers?
Amy's Ice Creams at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas, is one with a top five-star rating. "For purists, "Sweet Cream" is better than my grandmother's hand-cranked goodies," writes one reviewer. He also recommends the flavor called the "Irish Car Wreck."
For burgers, GateGuru users recommend the Five Guys location at Reagan Washington National Airport in the District of Columbia. "Must have for burger lovers and non-burger lovers," says one reviewer. "Be sure to get a few extra napkins, especially if you plan on eating it on the plane. I recommend getting Cajun fries -- many people don't know about them but they are much better than the traditional ones."
Ike's On Summit at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport gets a five-star rating from most of the 19 reviewers, and it's more than just about coffee and cocktails. "No question, this is THE best restaurant at MSP!" writes one reviewer. "Don't miss their milkshakes. And even though it may not be on the menu at times, ask for a seared tuna salad with wasabi."
"Terrible Food and Indifferent Service"
What are some of the worst restaurants? Sometimes it's hard to tell because GateGuru reviewers have differing opinions.
For example, the restaurant at Palm Beach International Airport that Gellert had the bad pizza at, Nick's Tomato Pie, actually received five favorable reviews out of six posted reviews. The one negative review was from Gellert himself, who says the pizza "tastes like cardboard."
At John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., it's easier to know what the reviewers say to avoid. Most of the 16 GateGuru reviews knocked the Oasis Grill & Sky Lounge. "Why ever pay for terrible food and indifferent service,'' says one. "You can get this from McDonald's and at least the food's warm."
Unfortunately, GateGuru can't solve the problem for travelers that Oasis is the only full-service, sit-down restaurant at the airport. Perhaps, if enough reviewers complain, the airport authorities in Orange County will wake up, and get this establishment to improve or find something better.
One last tip: GateGuru works best for larger, more frequently traveled airports, so users might want to stick to those if they want to get the app's full power.