Advertisement

Panera Reimagined A Whole New Menu, And We Tried And Ranked Each Item

Panera sandwiches near window
Panera sandwiches near window - Brendan McGinley/Tasting Table

Panera Bread is doing a major overhaul of its already comprehensive menu, declaring it the "Panera New Era," and I was standing by to sample it at the sneak-peek release party. The stylish event at the Hotel Eventi's Second space in New York City drew both journalists and influencers, including one very hungry Tasting Table field agent.

There, I tasted the nine newest menu offerings from the cafe and dining chain — which it has been suggesting, at least quietly, since last summer's Panera menu changes amid corporate decisions made waves among vegan customers and fans of awesome soup in general. Finally, this winter, the company officially announced the actual foods it will now offer in mid-spring.

I've ranked all of the new items you can order below, from least essential to must try. Read on to see which Panera orders you should get excited about, and which ones are negligible in these budget-conscious times.

Read more: Restaurant Foods That Always Taste Better Than What You Make At Home

What Is Panera Bread's New Menu For 2024?

Panera sandwiches lined up
Panera sandwiches lined up - Brendan McGinley/Tasting Table

The nationwide menu boost sees nine new menu items alongside updated recipes for a dozen existing menu items. Among those extant 12, the bravo club sandwich, chipotle chicken avocado melt, and fuji apple chicken salad are confirmed to be "enhanced" with revised recipes. Those enhancements vary from new spices or sauces, ingredient swaps for upgraded cheese and meat, and on at least some of them, additional meat to give carnivores more protein for their pennies.

As for the new tastes to try on your next lunch break, the new nine include four sandwiches, four salads, and Panera's take on a beloved side dish. The new sandwiches are the toasted Italiano, tomato basil BLT, chicken bacon rancher, and ciabatta cheesesteak. As for the salads, Panera has introduced the balsamic chicken greens with grains, Mediterranean chicken greens with grains, ranch Cobb salad, and southwest chicken ranch.

When Is Panera Bread's New 2024 Menu Available? What Does It Cost?

Panera sandwiches on trays
Panera sandwiches on trays - Brendan McGinley/Tasting Table

As announced in February, Panera Bread's New Era menu will make its debut nationwide on April 4. While Panera has yet to release details on what many of the offerings will cost, as of this writing, we know that at least a few will be very budget-friendly, with the tomato basil BLT, ranch Cobb salad, and Mediterranean greens with grains all selling for under $10.

This is a universal menu upgrade, not a "while supplies last" offer -- so all Panera Bread cafes should receive the new recipes for order on that Thursday, and then keep them in rotation permanently. Though, of course, menus at large-scale restaurant chains are forever evolving, meaning that some items could continue to change or vanish from the menu at an undetermined point down the road. If something tickles your appetite, better to indulge it now than wait and possibly miss out.

9. Balsamic Chicken Greens With Grains Salad

Panera balsamic chicken greens salad
Panera balsamic chicken greens salad - Brendan McGinley/Tasting Table

Our first, and therefore least essential, ranking to taste is the balsamic chicken greens with grains. Even though we're suckers for farro in a salad, this admirably healthy assemblage never quite comes together into a unified whole. The pepperoncini and avocado stand apart from everything else, while the chicken arrives a little too herbaceous to play nice with the other ingredients. These include red rice, cucumber, feta, pumpkin seeds, and the normally quite-welcome green goddess dressing, which is somewhat rocked by the chicken a second time via its balsamic tang.

All in all, these elements have the capacity to wow, but haven't really been put together in a strategy or with tactics that make use of their best qualities: not all of which are even on display unto themselves. You can give this salad a wide berth and not miss the experience, especially when there's a nearly identical edition slightly more successful in the form of the Mediterranean salad.

8. Mediterranean Chicken Greens With Grains Salad

Panera Mediterranean chicken greens salad
Panera Mediterranean chicken greens salad - Brendan McGinley/Tasting Table

We know what you're thinking; we're picking on the salads. How can any healthy bowl of leaves compete with a cheesesteak? But stick with us.

The Mediterranean chicken greens with grains bowl starts from the same place as the balsamic chicken version: romaine, some crunchier lettuce, farro, and red rice with grilled chicken, which in this case is all hucked around in Greek dressing. It's unclear if the chicken has the same herb seasoning as the balsamic salad, but in either case, it works better with its dressing than its colleague did with green goddess. The very Mediterranean additions of feta, Peppadew peppers, red onions, and cucumbers under Panera Bread's own shawarma seasoning ought to round out the flavors and textures, but ... maybe it's just hard to do that in the small servings we got?

It's hard to say, only that where the balsamic was a disparate cacophony, the Mediterranean version achieves peace through silence. The cucumbers are blink-and-miss, the shawarma is indetectable, and the Peppadew peppers and red onions tend to disguise one another. It's a shame, given that this region's cuisines can rock a salad harder than anywhere else on Earth, but it never quite gels, and you're left faintly wondering if you taste za'atar or not.

7. Bacon Mac & Cheese

Panera bacon mac cheese sourdough
Panera bacon mac cheese sourdough - Brendan McGinley/Tasting Table

Putting paid to the idea that salads rank lower than foods targeting our need for calories, the perennial champ macaroni and cheese with crumbly bits of bacon lands lower on this list than we might ever have expected. Yeah, it's a nice, creamy classic that doesn't mistake intensity with depth and avoids the former at a small cost of the latter. But if you're really hankering for comfort food, ask yourself what circumstances justify this enjoyable if not passionately endearing version.

For example: if it's a rainy Wednesday at the office, this might be a good get for you. But if you're at home, you can make better mac 'n' cheese with a box of the quality stuff or whatever cheeses in the fridge you want to get rid of. By the time you start your ignition, you've already done the same amount of technical expertise required to boil a box of Annie's that compares favorably to this ... except the Annie's will likely be cooked before you'd even be in line ordering.

But maybe you really love a sourdough bread bowl. Are you back in the race? Is your cupboard empty of boxed pasta? Is the grocery store farther than your local Panera? Do you just want to watch Netflix and have it appear? Only you can assess your expenditure-to-desire ratio. Suffice it to say, you may crave mac 'n' cheese, though you probably won't specifically crave this edition, so much as it serves the need.

6. Toasted Italiano Sandwich

Panera toasted Italiano sandwich
Panera toasted Italiano sandwich - Brendan McGinley/Tasting Table

Although it won't resemble the Italian sub in your favorite locally owned-and-operated sandwich spot, it's delightful without being comparable. The toasted Italiano focuses on mostly typical ingredients: a French baguette filled with soppressata, provolone, romaine, red onion, pepperoncini peppers, garlic aioli, a Greek dressing, and surprisingly, a Black Forest ham rather than a second Italian slice of meat. Between those four nations, it's closer to a European Tour sandwich than a strictly Italian one, but let's split lunch rather than hairs.

Although it doesn't quite have the same personality, and reaches a different place in your mouth, it's still a very satisfying combination that profits from the slightly crisped edges of the ham. You won't regret this order, unless you're pedantic about Italian ingredients; and in that case, you're probably unnecessarily upset by almost everything in life. Or maybe you're just feeling a bit hangry, in which case, we suggest stuffing your mouth with this dope sandwich.

5. Tomato Basil BLT Sandwich

Panera tomato basil BLT sandwich
Panera tomato basil BLT sandwich - Brendan McGinley/Tasting Table

Ahhh, the simple life. You cannot beat a fresh tomato or basil or bread, and when you put all three together, you're living zestily on their manifest gusto. Just as the focaccia's mildness puts a bow on the chicken bacon rancher below, so does the endgame richness of the bacon here showcase what's great about the more straightforward fruit, grain, and leaf of the plant ingredients.

Panera has incorporated tomato and basil into the miche sourdough bread, but to be honest, they're tough to detect even when sampling the bread on its own. Perhaps that's because the garlic aioli tends to override any subtlety, but you won't suffer the loss much when the real articles are right there in the sandwich serving up their satisfying freshness. Salt and pepper seasoning are all that's needed to bring that flavor forward when the aioli is, again, ruling the roost.

We're deducting a small penalty because the basil is actually understated in this sandwich, which is a very rare occurrence. But your order may come with a stronger serving of the herb.

4. Southwest Chicken Ranch Salad

Panera southwest chicken ranch salad
Panera southwest chicken ranch salad - Brendan McGinley/Tasting Table

Aw heck yeah, you can't beat a southwest salad unless you're all the menu items below that did. Regardless, we love the southwest chicken ranch salad's grilled corn and its tortilla chip cousin playing around with avocado, tomato, and ranch dressing. The funny thing is you could probably lose the chicken without affecting the final joyful flavor -- so vegetarians, take note if you're looking to do an easy adjustment order. We'd put money down that this salad gets even better with some black beans in it, if you're getting the southwest chicken ranch salad to go and want to do an at-home Panera secret menu hack type of an upgrade.

But even if you never alter it a smidge, you're dealing with a combination of fresh and fiery, dinged only by the fact that its chipotle aioli comes across too sweet and not smokey enough. It's easy to mistake for an errant drizzle of Thousand Island dressing bringing the wrong contribution, whereas a truly great chipotle sauce is normally one of the best condiments in human history.

3. Chicken Bacon Rancher Sandwich

Panera chicken bacon rancher sandwich
Panera chicken bacon rancher sandwich - Brendan McGinley/Tasting Table

Big, pillowy focaccia bread strewn through with black pepper might be the star here. It couches the fairly simple combination of grilled chicken and applewood-smoked bacon under a bed of aged white cheddar with ranch dressing. It's such a supergroup of always-satisfying ingredients proven to work well together that Panera sensibly didn't try to pull off course with any further additions (although, if Panera's chefs wanted to stuff in caramelized onions or crispy shallots, those could hang out with this crew).

This satisfying, hard-hitting combination surfs mainly atop the ranch and bacon, to which the chicken and the bread play the drums and bass. It really rewards eating slowly and letting it melt on your tongue, much as you want to take a huge bite to savor the ecstasy of rewarding fats and umami. The result is so richly harmonious that the airy bread actually gets featured as the crisp and chewy contrast that illustrates how dense the other flavors are. Magnificence.

2. Ranch Cobb Salad

Panera ranch Cobb salad
Panera ranch Cobb salad - Brendan McGinley/Tasting Table

Our best salad of the evening even edged out one of the most indulgent sandwiches, the chicken bacon rancher, proving that you don't have to go all-in on fats and meats to enjoy an artful ensemble of ingredients. It makes some interesting substitutions for the classic Cobb salad recipe: feta for bleu cheese and ranch for the vinaigrette or Caesar commonly dressing the mix.

That ranch dressing is sweeter than you might be used to for a Cobb salad, but it emerges supremely balanced, thanks to the feta's sharpness. The crunchier greens do a lot of work in a sea of romaine, adding welcome texture. Some very welcome pickled onions absolutely must be eaten in tandem with the salad's hard-boiled egg, to which our one wish is that there were more egg, chopped up and integrated with the other more granular ingredients (bacon, onions, and feta).

And though we don't mind spearing a cherry tomato, we heard a couple of folks remark through the night that they'd prefer the tomatoes were also diced or at least sliced. This seemed significant enough of a coincidence to remark for the tasting notes.

1. Ciabatta Cheesesteak Sandwich

Panera ciabatta cheesesteak sandwich
Panera ciabatta cheesesteak sandwich - Brendan McGinley/Tasting Table

Philly fans may howl about authenticity, but taken on its own, this version of the beloved cheesesteak offers a little something new in exchange for what it eschews. While it doesn't quite send the ooey-gooey, chewy deliciousness of a real Philly cheesesteak, this take offers a new capacity absent from the classic, original article: sweet Peppadew peppers. These chopped pickled peppers (which are commonly known as piquanté peppers or Juanita peppers if you're not buying brand name) have a sweet and tangy flavor, along with mild heat, perfectly complementing the twin fats of the meat and cheese.

Judging by how fast they vanished and were replenished, only to disappear again at the tasting, these sandwiches were the overwhelming favorite among those in attendance. The recipe is actually better for the subtle imbalance, although it will never give up the sheer gut reaction of joy from strands of provolone or a morass of Wiz wit.

Methodology

Panera New Era menu BLT sandwich
Panera New Era menu BLT sandwich - Brendan McGinley/Tasting Table

I ranked these new meal offerings first by sheer satisfaction: the only real metric for whether a meal is worth buying. I then considered how much these dishes improve on or offer a significant difference from comparable items at other restaurants or the grocery store. My guiding question was, "Is this worth getting at Panera Bread, or better found elsewhere?" If it was a combination of tastier, easier, faster, and cheaper to obtain other ways, that influenced a menu item's final ranking. And lastly, I had to weigh in whether those changes detracted from the character and charisma of a dish as we all commonly know it, and all the satisfaction it's capable of offering.

With those criteria in hand, I ate a lot of sandwiches and salads, went back to the well for more, and made note of what everyone else was zeroing in on for their seconds. The end result should be both my opinion and a straw poll of people voting with their stomachs.

Read the original article on Tasting Table