It's no secret that we're partial to Springfield's mom-and-pop operations. From on one end of the township to on the other, and , and others in between, Springfield has its share of independently owned lunch options.
But it's chains like that have consistent lines at lunchtime. Last week, we revisited Panera, with its fast moving lines, busy kitchen help and bustling dining room. Even in its parking lot, it was difficult to get a space close to the restaurant.
A sticker on the front door last year noted that Health magazine had named this Missouri-based chain one of America's healthiest restaurants.
This year, we see that that sticker has been replaced with one advertising Panera's sweet baked goods. Indeed, when you walk in, it's not the healthy fare that stares you in the face, but the bear claws, cinnamon rolls and M&M cookies under the glass--all of which look tempting. Behind all of those sweets are loaves of bread for sale, from tomato basil and asiago to whole grain.
The dining room is a comforting mix of earth tones. The walls are decorated with abstract art of bread as well as photos of amber waves of Midwestern grain. Most of the tables are full. Behind the counter, much of the food preparation is done in full view of the customer. Gloved hands assemble panini as if they're following a formula, pulling ingredients from marked bins and placing the finished sandwiches onto an Electrolux press, which puts dark grill lines into the bread.
In this space last year, we talked about the plusses and minuses of our favorite salad, the Cobb. The plusses: The romaine was crunchy, the bacon crisp and the dressing tangy. The minuses: The chicken had that seasoned-and-prepared-somewhere-else flavor that you often find in chain restaurants. The pieces of egg were tiny. And the bleu cheese was almost nonexistent.
This year, we tried one of the sandwiches, the Mediterranean veggie. Among the benefits of eating at a chain store is the ability to read about exactly what you're eating and how many calories it contains. The Mediterranean veggie sandwich – with feta, cilantro hummus, cucumber, lettuce, red onions, fresh tomatoes and piquant peppers on tomato basil bread – tops out at a modest 600 calories, more than half of which come from the bread.
In terms of taste, we liked the sharp creaminess of the feta, the zing of the onion and the fire of the jalapeno cilantro hummus. The bread – made a little soggy by the hummus -- was light and fluffy, leaving us no doubt this was baked fresh.
For a side, we chose the healthiest option, the apple. It was lacking in flavor, but that is to be expected at this time of year. We should know better not to eat out of season. At least it didn't have a mealy texture.
Comparing Panera to the independent shops we prefer, we do have to give Panera credit for having a diverse menu. If you're looking for an almond chicken salad sandwich and a Cuban chicken panini under the same roof, this is your place. It's not our favorite place in town, but scores of Springfielders seem to enjoy it every day.