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In a word: A little better than half a loaf.

The specs: #0469 
Address, hours & details via Isthmus; reviews at Yelp, EatDrinkMadison listing; official web site and Madison community page; Panera Bread on Urbanspoon

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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.

Sandwich and bad appleSandwich and bread bowl soup

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.

Kid's mealNichole'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.

SaladJohn 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.


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Co-workers have brought in their bagels before. I like their cinnamon-sugar-no-raisin bagel. I went there for a breakfast sandwich when I was out of town. It was completely unremarkable. The bread was just like generic supermarket bread.

I can't imagine why anyone would go to Panera when you can go to Gotham, Marigold, Cafe Soleil, Manna Cafe, La Baguette, etc.

I admit I sometimes frequent Panera when I'm counting calories. They have a very nice nutritional database on their website. I much prefer the foods at local places, but not knowing how much of what is in everything means they have to be a splurge. Whereas when I know how much is in something, I can work it into my daily alottment. It's nice to have a somewhat healthy outlet with known quantities other than subway.

Agreed that we should support local eateries over any chain whatsoever, but I would argue that among lunch chains Panera is head and shoulders above the rest.

Would love to frequent a ma/pa sandwich shop, can anyone suggest one on the East/Far East side of Madison? Panera is great if you are in a hurry and just can't stomach another fast food sub or burger. Their breakfast mini quiches are delicious!

@Karen: Mildred's on Johnson. Awesome, quirky, reasonably priced. Just not fast, so don't go in a hurry.

100% recommendation for Mildred's on Johnson if you want a sandwich on the East Side.

There Asiago bagels are AWESOME. Just microwave them for 30 seconds and enjoy them PLAIN. Their reduced? fat cream cheese is also superb, ie excellent flavor & don't notice the lower fat content.

Karen-- have you tried Cool Beans near East Towne? Very tasty panini... and as I recall they come with a wee salad and some potato chips. it is definitely NOT just a coffee place. Also big thumbs up to Mermaid Cafe on Atwood. The bahn mi sandwich is GREAT (and there's a veggie version).

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