With 24,000 Restaurants and Dozens of Search Tools, How Do New Yorkers Decide Where to Go to Dinner?

This week, Zagat's released its 32nd annual restaurant survey. Years ago, Zagat's was one of the few places to go for advice on navigating the city's 24,000 or so eateries. But with the arrival of Web sites like Urbanspoon and Menupages and Yelp, there's lots of competition in the restaurant advice business.

With so many restaurant guides to choose from, how to choose the right one?

Ryanne Hodson takes the super-geek approach. She's a video blogger and an ex-New Yorker who now visits the city frequently from Virginia. She says new programs for smartphones have completely changed the way she finds places to eat and drink.

In the old days, picking a restaurant meant planning ahead, or trying your luck following your nose.

Now, if she's looking for a caffeine fix, Hodson types the word "coffee" into the Yelp app on her iPhone and is instantly offered a list of dozens of nearby choices, with user-generated reviews.

Hodson says she tends to navigate Manhattan while looking at a mobile phone screen in the palm of her hand.

"It is kinda scary. You're just like, 'where am I?'' You're looking at your phone. But it works, you know," she says.

At lunchtime in Washington Square Park, there are few people like Hodson.

More people say they search Web sites at their computer terminals at home or at work before heading out to eat. Books, magazines and newspapers still have their supporters too. But the two most popular ways of choosing restaurants are the most basic -- word of mouth and walking around, looking for something interesting.

Many people say rather than face a seemingly limitless array of choices, they prefer to stick to places they already know. And research suggests it may be smart to limit yourself.

Sheena Iyengar is a Professor at Columbia Business School and author of the book, The Art of Choosing. She recently conducted an experiment on restaurant choice using real New Yorkers as her guinea pigs. Members of each group sat in front of a computer screen set to the Zagat website. Members of one group were offered a lot of choices and as much time as they wanted to pick a place to eat. People in the other group had just a few options and only three minutes to choose.

Who ended up happier? The people who had to make a decision fast.

"When they had more choice, they ended up getting confused by the choices and forgetting about what they wanted, or reconsidering what they wanted" says Iyengar.

By contrast, those with fewer choices and less time made decisions quickly, and tended to be satisfied.

But with 24,000 thousand options, how can New Yorkers limit themselves?

Iyengar offers a method, based on her own personal experiences eating out with her husband. First, they select a neighborhood. Then Iyengar gives her husband exactly one half hour to investigate all the nearby options, using his smartphone.

"And at the end of the 30 minutes, you just pick the one you like best," Iyengar says. "I'm not gonna be walking around for the next hour, hour and a half. 'Cause I do think that can get a little ridiculous."