Pros: Good fresh food, good prices, relaxed atmosphere.
Cons: Awkward coffee station, skimpy on cream cheese.
Let me start out by admitting I am a big fan of Panera Bread Company. The funny thing is when they first opened in my area I thought what is the big deal? Another bagel place? How many bagels is one town supposed to eat? But I was very wrong.
Yes, Panera has bagels. Lots of varieties of bagels - and they are pretty good. My personal favorite is the Asiago Cheese. If you have a sweeter tooth, you may prefer the Cinnamon Crunch or French Toast (a favorite with kids, and they taste like dessert.) However, Panera leaves something to be desired in the cream cheese department. Our local restaurant only offers 5 varieties, and when you consider the price they charge compared to the tiny amount they give you its not a really great deal.
So why do I enjoy the place so much? The lunch! Lets first start off with the sandwiches. They have over 15 choices each served on fresh-baked bread. The selection ranges from the hearty (Bacon Turkey Bravo, Pepperblue Steak) to the diet-conscious (Garden Veggie). The thing that sets Panera apart in my opinion is that they are so flexible with your ordering. Do you want to change or add some items to a menu sandwich? Maybe youd rather have it on a panini? Sure! Panera is so accommodating that if they have the ingredients and bread of your choice, they will build you whatever sandwich you want with a smile. And don't forget if you really love one of the breads, you can take a loaf to go.
The soups are also very delicious. I adore the French Onion soup sprinkled with cheese and crispy breadcrumbs made from their own bread. My carb-watching pals swear by the Broccoli Cheddar. In all, they have around 10 soups to choose from (including seasonal specials).
One of my favorite offers from Panera are the fresh salads. Lots to choose from and again they will interchange ingredients and dressings for you with no problem. My personal favorite is the Bistro Steak Salad. Field greens mixed with walnuts, gorgonzola cheese and steak filets. Delicious and filling.
Panera also offers a great deal called the U-Pick-Two. You can choose any two of their salads, soup or sandwich and you get a half-order of each for a good price (approx $8). The half-sizes are surprisingly large, and they top off your plate with a large chunk of homemade French bread.
If you are in the mood for a fancy coffee drink, look no further. Paneras lattes are delicious. My personal favorite is the caramel latte. For about $3 you get a heaping mugful. If youd rather have your latte frozen they will do that too. Say goodbye to Dunkin Donuts Coolattas, say hello to the I.C. Chillers - this frozen coffee drink tastes a lot better for about the same price.
I would recommend the lattes far above the regular cups of coffee. The coffee is just so-so and the coffee station is set up awkwardly. If someone is taking their sweet time with the cream and sugar, then you just have to wait. And if they run out of coffee (which often happens) it takes a long time for them to brew more.
I almost forgot the sweets! Panera offers a wide variety of cakes, cookies, danishes and other sugar-filled goods. My sister loves the Pineapple Upsidedown Mini Bundt cake, while I like the simple shortbread cookie. The cakes can be purchased whole to bring to a gathering, or just take a slice for yourself. The danish also comes available to-go in a huge ring of assorted flavors to feed the masses.
The ambiance in Panera is very laid back. Tables can be readjusted to accommodate groups of 2 to 20 with no problem. A nice area if you just want to sit and relax is the leather chairs set up around the fireplace. Panera provides you with local papers too, so you can read while you chill out.
All in all, Panera is a good place to go for breakfast, lunch or dinner. They dont mind if youre running in for a quick snack or milling around for a few hours. The food is fresh and delicious and the prices are very reasonable.