An offshoot of Au Bon Pain in the 1990s, Panera Bread has carved out its own niche throughout the U.S., with more than 1,500 cafe-bakeries in 41 states. Two local franchises are at 321 Arsenal St. in Watertown and 1100 Lexington St. in Waltham. All their bread is baked fresh on the premises. They specialize in sandwiches, often with chicken or turkey, various kinds of dressings, and herbs and spices, salads and soups, as well as continental breakfasts, such as pastries and souffles.
Suggested dish: One of their most-popular offerings is "Pick 2": a half-sandwich and a half-salad or cup of soup. The price for it ranges from $6.99 to $8.99, depending on the kind of sandwich and salad. We chose the Sierra turkey sandwich with chicken cobb salad combo ($8.50). The half-portions were substantial, especially the salad, which was creamy and full of herbed chicken and avocado. But the sandwich was the real winner: slices of turkey, "field greens," red onion and an outstanding chipolte (smoked-dried jalapeno) mayonnaisse that was bold and peppery without dominating.
The vibe: Casual, lively, social atmosphere.
Cool factor no. 1: Lots of sunny outdoor seating at the Watertown site, which is next to the Arsenal Center for the Arts.
Cool factor no. 2: The site on Arsenal Street in Watertown was voted the best wi-fi in town.
Cool factor no. 3: Comfy chairs and round tables (along with booths) make it feel like a restaurant.