In a word: A little better than half a loaf.
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JM ate the broccoli cheese soup in a bread bowl.
John ate the chicken bacon dijon sandwich with a fountain soda.
John Sams ate the Fuji apple salad and an iced green tea.
Nichole ate the grilled cheese and beef kids' meal with a coffee.
Rose are the ham and swiss with a fountain soda.
The bill was about $40, or $8/person, plus tip.
John Sams gave Panera a B+; JM, John, Nichole, and Rose gave Panera a B- (see our grading rubric).
Panera is one of those chain speedy-service places that we can best appreciate when we're in a hurry, on the road, or looking for a place to hang out and study. It also seems to do a brisk business in the early-morning-bakery-for-the-office market. With the nearly identical Atlanta Bread Co. now off the radar in Madison, it will likely be even busier; while JM and Nichole tended to favor Panera over ABC for better pastries and coffee, we know plenty of people who felt the opposite. And truthfully, the differences are not huge. You can always get a decent salad, sandwich, or loaf of bread here.
John's chicken bacon dijon sandwich was passable, but he wanted to point out that his choices were limited since so many of the menu items had one ingredient that was a turnoff to him, be it artichokes, black olives, or the like. The sourdough bread was not as tasty and zingy as he would have liked. Rose's ham and swiss was loaded with meat but short on cheese; we all bemoaned the pink, styrofoam tomato.
Nichole's grilled roast beef and cheese sandwich hadn't been given quite enough time on the grill press to melt the cheese. On the other hand, it wasn't loaded with grease, and the yogurt "Tuberz" was a fun, if confounding, side for a grownup. Panera deserves some praise for offering better kids' meal options than most fast food restaurants - or even sitdown places, for that matter.
John Sams' Fuji apple salad was well-balanced and satisfying, and had that hallmark can't-quite-name-it Panera flavor. JM liked his broccoli cheese soup in a bread bowl, though the difference between it and the same soup served in his office cafeteria was minimal.
As for the beverages, Panera offers a wide array of coffee, tea, and blended drinks. The fountain soda choices are not as broad, particularly in the diet department.
As chain dining in this price range goes, people seem to have more respect for Panera than, say, Arby's. With such good sandwich shops and bakeries across our fair city, it seems like Panera is a bit of an underwhelming choice. But if you bring in Panera for the office, we're not going to complain.