Pros: free wifi, variety of hot beverages, free refills on soda and iced tea, bakery items
Cons: overpriced food, small portions, food often tastes off, inconsistent from one location to another
I wasn't very impressed by Panera Bread the first few times I ate there. Much like Au Bon Pain, it offers expensive and not overly stuffed sandwiches in a pseudo-gourmet assembly line style. Soups and salads are also available, often with slightly unusual ingredients. Panera Bread also has an extensive array of pastries and breads and baked desserts as well as a full selection of coffees and teas.
Indeed, Panera Bread is really two restaurants in one. It's both a sandwich shop and a coffee shop. It wasn't until I internalized this that I found the good side of the chain. Panera Bread fails as a restaurant for the reasons enumerated above and several others but it's a surprisingly decent coffee shop.
Panera Bread the Restaurant
Panera Bread the restaurant fails for several reasons. First of all, it's expensive. A half sandwich and bowl of soup runs almost $7 without a drink. Most sandwiches are at least $6. Most salads run $7. Just a small bowl of soup costs $3.50.
I could live with these prices if the food was uniformly good and the portions reasonable but neither is the case. The food isn't precisely bad, but very little of it is really good either. The soups tend to taste just a little off. The French Onion soup just has slivers of cold swiss cheese tossed on top. They don't melt, just get soggy. They're also really sharp and don't complement the beef base. The broccoli and cheese soup is just a bit sour and the other soups I've tried have been similarly lacking in some way or another.
The salads are creative and often integrate fruit. Unfortunately the romaine lettuce used as the base of all salads tends to be mostly ends with little or no leaf and some of the other ingredients are sometimes less than fresh. I did like the salad I tried that included strawberries, apples, and blueberries on top of lettuce with a poppyseed dressing but they forgot to include the promised chicken. When I mentioned it, the staff refused to admit they made a mistake. They do prepare the salads fresh (a step up from Au Bon Pain) which is nice, but it does require the preparers to pay attention to what you ordered.
Of the sandwiches I've tried, only the chicken caesar sandwich is really tasty. The roast beef sandwich I tried was stringy and contained only a single slice of meat which is just ridiculous. Most of the other deli meats are on the dry side. The chicken salad is like tasteless rubber. The breads are delicious, especially the three cheese bread and the rosemary and onion foccacia. Although most of the sandwiches come with a specific type of bread, they'll usually let you freely substitute whatever bread you prefer.
Basically, although it is possible to select tasty food if you're very careful, most of the food isn't terribly great. Combined with the small portions and expensive prices (for what you get) and I simply cannot recommend Panera Bread for meals.
Panera Bread the Coffee Shop
If, however, you're looking for a coffee shop, Panera Bread is a good choice. I am not a coffee drinker, but in addition to dozens of types of coffee beverages, they offer a multitude of teas and make a killer hot chocolate. All of the basic coffees and the teas come with free refills if you dine in (so do soft drinks, iced coffee, and iced tea). You can sit for a long time for a very small amount of money. Specialty coffee drinks and the hot chocolate don't include refills, but the hot chocolate at least comes in an enormous mug (it's at least twice the size of a bowl of soup). A rich blend topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce, I've seen people make a meal out of a mug. At just under $2 that's a good deal.
A variety of baked goods complement the hot beverages. Tortes, brownies, filled croissants, muffins, and bagels are always available. Exact styles and fillings vary but there are always at least two dozen different items available for $2.50 or less. The bagels are $0.89 and both butter and a delicious thick strawberry preserves are free for the asking. Cream cheese, however, is a ridiculous $1.10 extra for a small dollop. I've never even considered trying any of their small variety of cream cheese flavors.
Perhaps the best coffee house feature, though, is the free wifi access. You can come in, buy a cup of coffee or tea or a soft drink and sit for as long as you want refilling your drink. I've sat there for five hours without a word of protest and without buying more than a $1.25 (recently raised to $1.46 in some locations) refillable iced tea. This is a killer feature and every time I've visited a Panera Bread during the day at least half a dozen folks are taking advantage of it. I know it's made me think much more favorably of the chain and made me more willing to give them money for food I consider overpriced.
In many ways Panera Bread really is two restaurants in one. There are two separate counters and most people seem to either be sipping beverages and munching pastries with or without surfing the net or eating a meal but rarely both.
That said, the two sections share a single seating area and the two groups of patrons mix together. There's a mix of booths, half booths with chairs on the other side, and round tables at most locations. It's not at all uncommon to see folks scarfing down food at one table, reading a newspaper while nursing a mug of hot chocolate at the next, and sitting in front of a laptop dead to the world at the next.
Staff regularly patrol the seating area in some locations, ready to remove trash or clean up that spilled drink. In other locations staff is scarce and rarely seen outside of the counter area. There can be a decided difference in cleanliness from one location to the next and some locations seem much more businesslike than others. I prefer the friendly spots and the spots where staff patrols the seating areas (the two tend to coincide).
Basically, if you're looking for coffee, tea, or pastries it's hard to go wrong with Panera Bread. If you're looking for a meal it's much less appealing. The free wifi is extremely compelling as is their willingness to let you sit and nurse a refillable beverage for hours at a time. If you're looking for a spot to work or even to hold a small quiet meeting, you can do a lot worse. If you just want food look elsewhere.