There are two types of restaurants I frequent: the ones I like and the ones that are close. Here on Eat Arkansas, I tend to focus on the places I really like, but I do think about those close ones quite a bit. Is my laziness an excuse for inferior food? Perhaps it isn't a good one, but it's all too often the reason why I pass up quality cuisine for something quick, close, and relatively cheap. In my neighborhood, that means settling for places like Pei Wei, Wendy's, and now, with Panera Bread's most recent location opening in the Park Place Shopping center, I find myself at the chain bakery and deli more often than ever. Sure, there's the new Big Orange Midtown right around the corner, but even they're a little too upscale when the lazy monster strikes.
So, yeah, I eat at Panera, but I can't say I enjoy it. I don't hate it or anything, but there's never a moment I sit in that antiseptic and blandly decorated dining room, chewing on spongy tomatoes and pressed turkey, thinking, "Wow, now this is a sandwich." I've never had a culinary epiphany at Panera, and it's never pushed me to attempt new things. And that, dear friends, is the terrible genius of Panera, a restaurant that always seems to be full at lunch of both the elderly and a rowdy mob of Episcopal Collegiate students: it's fast food people can fool themselves into feeling good about.
Ever since Morgan Spurlock hit the scene with his slickly produced (if dubiously researched) documentary "Super Size Me," fast food has been under attack. To a certain class of people, grabbing lunch for your kids from the Clown, the Colonel, or the King is tantamount to child abuse. Marketing people aren't stupid; they know people want to maximize their feelings of "doing the right thing" with food while minimizing the actual work involved with getting that food into their mouths and stomachs. Enter the "fast casual" restaurants like Panera and Chipotle. Sure, it's not that much better than any other fast food, but hey — at least it doesn't have a drive-thru!
But I suppose I have to hand it to Panera, that John Tesh of delis. It's the culinary equivalent of the color beige, but it's packed every single day. The food tastes just good enough to satisfy the basic human need for sustenance, but in the end, it's a place that only the kids who ate paste in elementary school could ever find "delicious." Panera is a place that somehow manages to sell salads, sandwiches, and pasta that all taste exactly the same, with only minor textural differences. They gussy it up some with real silverware, but really it's just yuppie-friendly fast food with a case of dried out pastries at the front to justify a half-hearted "bakery" label. It's not bad enough to really rag on too hard, but it never turns out to be good enough to justify a return visit. And yet I return, time and time again, to slurp down another wilted panini, another over-dressed salad, another arid pecan bun, fully aware that the problem is not with Panera, but something internal, something in my lazy self that allows restaurants to get away with this sort of slapdash semblance of quality.
Comedian Jim Gaffigan once said, "You know you're a pig when you eat something that tastes horrible but you don't notice until the last bite," and I think that truer words have never been spoken. And so I'll try to wake myself up and avoid the siren call of cheap and easy food, because I'm tired of taking that last bite in bland disgust.
Panera Bread is located at 314 S University Ave #100 and just behind the Pat Boone albums at your nearest record shop. They're open for breakfast, lunch, and whatever.