Panera Bread's cafe menu needs to rise to the level of its bread

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When I'm walking into a Panera Bread , it's hard for me to remember that I'm not headed into Starbucks. There's the same wafting aroma of espresso and suburban MILF perfume; the same mellow, snoozy music; and the counter employees are so gleeful I wonder if they've been threatened by tasers. But then, Panera Bread could be the Starbucks of bakeries. The stores are uniform, ubiquitous and popular, with solid baked goods and light-meal breakfast/lunch/diner items that are passably good. But there are better -- and definitely worse -- possibilities out there.

Panera's began life as Le Bon Pain Co. in 1981, when Louis Kane and Ronald M. Shaich started the first one in Kirkwood, Missouri. In 1993 the company acquired the St. Louis Bread Company; in 1999 Le Bon Pain sold off its current stores, was renamed Panera Bread, subsequently bought out Paradise Bakery & Café, and today operates 1,591 company-owned and franchise-operated bakery/cafes in 41 states and Ontario, Canada.

Panera is generally seen as being a healthy chain of restaurants, and it was in the vanguard of the movement to show nutritional information on all of its menu items. I've always found it interesting that a bakery-based restaurant like this one has managed to market itself as a bastion of nutrition -- props to Panera's marketing teams past and present for making gobbing down baguettes and cream cheese-studded pastries seem like no-harm-no-foul.

I went to the Panera Bread at 3700 Quebec Street, and although it was during prime-time brunch on a Saturday, the chow lines were short. Panera has three counters: one for breakfast and bakery items, one to order meals, and a small middle counter for such specialty coffee orders as espresso drinks and frozen coffee creations. The breads and pastries looked plenty tempting -- beautiful baguettes with bubby crusts and light, buttery sweets with shiny-glazed fresh fruit toppings. But I focused on lunch, ordering lemon chicken orzo soup in a bread bowl with a Caesar salad, penne Bolognese with a Greek salad, lemonade and a chocolate chip cookie. Baguette hunks were included with the meals, so I was all set. Looking around the dining room, it hit me that this place even looked like a Starbucks: dark, mild color palate, padded wood booths and spindly, fashionable tables and chairs, and a large gas fireplace smack in the center for a mostly-contrived but acceptable atmosphere of coziness and comfort. The room was also teeming with children, moving around the furniture like pinballs.

This is definitely a family restaurant on the weekends, so if you're solo with a laptop, seeking a quiet haven, you're better off patronizing Panera's during the week -- or actually going to Starbucks.

My food was ready in about ten minutes, and I fetched my trays and dug in. Pasta dishes are a fairly new concept for Panera, and based on the penne Bolognese I tried, there's plenty of room for improvement. The pasta was sticky and mushy, the sauce light on both meat and flavor, and the layer of shaved Parmesan cheese on top thick enough to be a crust. But my baguette was fine.

Neither salad was anyhing to write home about, although the Caesar had a glut of super-tasty croutons, possibly made from leftover baguettes.

The soup wasn't bad -- it was extra-lemony, with bits of chicken and overcooked orzo pasta. But the bread bowl it came in was so soft, bubbly, dense and crisp on the outside that it far out-distanced its contents. I ripped apart the soupy bowl and masticated like a cow.

I am incredibly, unabashedly, un-apologetically picky as hell about chocolate chip cookies. Stale, chip-stingy, badly-baked cookies will be slam-dunked into the nearest ash-can so fast I should go pro. But Panera's oversized cookie was deliciously soft with that thin, delicate circumference of butter-crisp, and a whore-load of chocolate chips. I loved the way it came in an individual paper bag with a plastic peep-window like an office envelope. And the fresh-squeezed lemonade, which actually tasted like it was made in-house, was a perfect accompaniment.

I'm not sure why Panera Bread decided to stray so far afield from its raison d'etre of extraordinary breads, rolls, bagels, scones, muffins and cakes. But if it wants to stay in this territory, it needs to improve the items on its light-meal menu to the standards of its baked goods.

If these dishes were as memorable as its bread, perhaps Panera could even give Starbucks a run for its money. Because after all, Buckies has no baguettes.

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