Monday, July 15, 2013

Restaurant Review: Panera Bread

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Delicious food and a decent atmosphere
Cons: Full of calories and a bit on the pricey side
The Bottom Line
Great tasting food and
Variety of choices
Low key restaurant

Soup, Salad, and Sandwiches That Taste Wonderful

It’s been a few years now since I was introduced to Panera Bread.  The menu is fairly simple, but the taste is wonderful.

This chain restaurant features soup, salad, and sandwiches.  You can buy a whole or a half portion.  Their most popular menu item is the You Pick 2, where you can buy a half portion of two items on their menu.  (Shocking based on that description, isn’t it?)  In addition to the two menu items, you get a baguette of bread, which you can change to an apple, potato chips, or a whole wheat baguette.  It’s what I usually get, and I enjoy it.

I have never gotten a salad, but some of the choices include Roasted Turkey Harvest, BBQ Chopped Chicken, Grilled Chicken Caesar, or Fuji Apple Chicken.

When it comes to their soups, I have a clear favorite.  Their Broccoli Cheddar soup is delicious, probably because it includes so much wonderful cheddar flavor.  My parents, on the other hand, love their Low Fat Vegetarian Black Bean.  They have four soups they make every day (including my Broccoli Cheddar), and others they rotate (like the Black Bean).  Some day, I really should try the Baked Potato soup since it sounds delicious.  And, yes, on Fridays they serve New England Clam Chowder if that’s your thing.  (Fish?  Yuck!)  If you just come in for the soup, you can get it served in a bread bowl or a traditional bowl.

And then come the sandwiches.  They use good quality meat and cheese to make them and then top them with spreads and produce in the perfect combination.  I usually get a Smokehouse Turkey, which features turkey, bacon, and cheddar with an ale mustard spread.  But last night I decided to try one of their seasonal offerings, a Roasted Turkey and Cranberry.  It could have used more cranberry, but oh was it ever good.  And I must go back to try their three cheese blended Big Kid Grilled Cheese Sandwich.  All of these are what they called a grilled panini, but they do also have more traditional sandwiches that they don’t heat up.  Again, I’ve never tried them.

This does bring up the point that they change their menu every so often.  They have a Strawberry Fields salad most summers, for example.  While they haven’t said so, I expect the turkey and cranberry sandwich I just mentioned will disappear not too long from now.  It’s an added thing to watch for when you go for a visit.

Of course, the danger with a restaurant like this is that you think you’re eating healthy when you aren’t.  Salads with too many fancy add ons can run up the calories, and that’s the case here.  The sandwiches are the worst, however, with most of them running between 600 and 800 calories for the full sandwich.  That’s not a light mean by any stretch of the imagination.

Here in California, the restaurants have a nice atmosphere.  They’ve got pleasant background music playing.  When a location gets crowded, it can be noisy, but that’s true of just about anywhere.  Most of the time, it’s quite and enjoyable; you can easily carry on a conversation.

When you enter, you go straight to the counter and place an order.  You can get it to go or to eat there.  At least in California and Texas, where I have eaten at Panera Bread over the years, if you are eating your meal there, they give you a number to display, and someone brings your meal out to you.  The wait is never long for the food.  This restaurant is a step up from a fast food restaurant, but the food tastes better.  That also explains why the drinks are location at a central fountain and not brought to you.

The prices are a bit on the steep side.  What I get usually runs me in the $9 range for just me – and I always skip a drink and stick with the free water.

In addition to their cafĂ©, Panera Bread also has a bakery section that features bagels made fresh daily and fresh sweets.  The sweets aren’t quite as good as they look, but I’ve only tried a couple of items.  The bagels were good, however.

Speaking of bagels, they do offer a morning menu I’ve tried a couple of times.  It has the typical bagel, egg, meat, and cheese kind of sandwiches, and I’ve found them to be good.

One final items for all the coffee lovers out there – you can get specialty coffee drinks as well.  Since I don’t drink coffee, I’ve never tried them, so I can’t comment beyond that.

Panera Bread also has a membership card.  Swipe it every time you go in and you can earn free stuff.  Of course, you need to go in more than the every two or three months I visit to actually get something and then redeem it, but it is out there.

Every Panera Bread location I’ve visited offers free wifi you can use while in the restaurant.  I’ve seen student hang out there studying like it’s a Starbucks.

The menu does seem a little on the pricey side for what you get, but the food is good, so I keep going back to Panera Bread as a treat.  It’s a delicious twist on what is normally some pretty simple fair.

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