Au Bon Pain is basically a deli cum café, although they like to think of themselves as the other way around. It is a chain food establishment located mainly in urban and suburban areas. I have eaten at many of them in and around the Washington, D.C. area.
The bottom line is I don't like Au Bon Pain much because: I don't care much for the food selection, it's noisy and crowded at lunch time, and it's too expensive for what you get. The only reason I go there is because one location is so convenient to my office that I don't even have to leave the building when it's rainy or cold. Otherwise, I probably would never eat here.
The Food: Overview
Years ago I always thought of granola crunching, tree hugging, vegetarian, health food nuts when I thought of this restaurant chain. And to some degree that is still true. Given such a wide selection of food items, I frequently find there's not much here I really care for. When one peruses the menu of bread, soup, salad, and non-red meat – lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese – oriented sandwiches one realizes overall this chain remains a veggie oriented establishment.
Au Bon Pain is mainly known for four things – bread and patries, soups, salads, and sandwiches.
The Food: Bread and Pastries
Let's start with the bread and pastries together. First, I don't eat plain bread or pastry items here too often but have on occasion. They have very good bagels, croissants, pastries like cheese Danishes, and muffins. I would definitely rate them above average. But they are no better than the same items at similar establishments. They are nothing to go out of your way for but they are good. Same goes for other items like cookies.
The Food: Soups
I eat a lot of soup here. They mostly have very good soups and my favorites are the New England Clam Chowder, Broccoli and Cheddar, and Corn Chowder. Their Beef Stew and Mediterranean Seafood Stew are pretty good too. The only downside of soups is if that is all you eat, you'll be pretty hungry again soon.
The Food: Salads
A salad is a salad right? The good thing about Au Bon Pain is they do provide a number of pre-made salads that you can grab off the shelf and jet out the door (well, you do have to pay first). Often I eat soup and salad, but pay for it later when my stomach starts to growl in protest over the paltry amount of sustenance it has been provided. There is nothing special about any of the salads – it's just mostly lettuce and then whatever other items that go in the type of salad you've picked up. And you pay extra for the dressing.
To be fair though, the salads with meat in them are pretty good and reasonably filling. I used to love the Thai Chicken Salad but they haven't made that in a while. The Chicken Caesar and Turkey Medallion Cobb Salads are also pretty good and filling. They give you a decent amount of meat too, even though it's still mostly lettuce. I haven't tried their new Steak Salad and I wonder if it's part of their recent trend in offering more meat oriented items.
They do have a new area in the establishment I frequent where you can create your own salad. I usually only eat salads because I'm in a hurry, not because I want to, so I never have spent time to do this.
The Food: Sandwiches and Wraps
And we come to the sandwiches. I used to hate trying to choose from the crappy sandwich choices they used to have. I know a lot of people love sandwiches filled with vegetables, but I am just not one of them. Yes, I know they had sandwiches with meat in them too, but if you ordered one it was still all vegetables and a little meat, unless it was tuna salad.
Finally, they recently introduced some meat oriented sandwiches. Two I think are very good. The BBQ Pulled Pork with Carrot Slaw and a bag of potato chips has become my main lunchtime staple these days. The sandwich is on an onion roll and is very tasty. The other is the Steak and Gorgonzola Cheese sandwich, which also has tomatoes and caramelized onions on it. Their turkey, chicken, and spicy tuna salad sandwiches are also pretty good for variety. I don't know much about the sandwiches with mostly all vegetables on them because I don't pay attention to them.
They also allow you to create your own sandwich by filling out a little form, which I'm sure some people really like. I just go for what's on the menu.
They also have some pre-made baked sandwiches. The roasted turkey one I don't care for much because they put too much honey mustard on it and it makes the sandwich too sweet for my tastes. The tuna salad is pretty good though.
Finally they have all kinds of wraps. I always hate wraps because they always fall apart and the insides end up in my plate or on my lap or both. Also, sometimes the bread is a bit soggy because the water from where they wash the lettuce or the dressing makes it soggy. This is particularly true of the Chicken Caesar Wrap. You're better off just getting a salad with some bread on the side, than the Chicken Caesar Wrap. The wrap is just a mess.
The Food: Coffee and Drinks
I sure spend a lot of money in this place now that I think about it. They have a good selection of drinks and coffees. I don't buy any beverages here other than coffee but you can get Gatorade, bottled water, a few carbonated beverages that I don't recall the names of, juices, and bottled tea. I might be leaving something out since I don't pay that much attention to the drinks. The coffee is pretty good, at least it's much better than the dregs I can get in the office, and frankly I kind of like it better than Starbucks. But it's just as expensive as Starbucks ($1.75 for a large coffee).
Ambiance is the worst thing about Au Bon Pain, not just the one I go to most often, but all the ones I've ever been in.
First, if you want a sandwich you fill out a little form and stand at a sandwich bar and wait for it to be made. If it's crowded it is just a little ridiculous how people bunch around the area and it's very inefficient it seems. Typically the sandwich makers do a pretty good job of moving through the orders quickly and with cheer, but it's just so annoying standing being jostled in a crowd to order a sandwich.
Also, the seating is really not all that comfortable, with the hard metal chairs and tables all bunched together in the seating area. And if it's crowded the place is just a total zoo and you might have a hard time finding somewhere to sit.
And of course given the crowd, depending on where you sit, you may even get jostled by people walking by your table while you eat, as they sling their briefcases or backpacks around without paying attention to what they are doing.
Typically the service is decent. I think the set up is often not conducive to good service with the sandwich bar often being too crowded and the line to pay for food often snaking back to where people are trying to get soup. The people that work there, however, smile, and are friendly, and do their best to provide good customer service. I have no complaints.
This is another real downfall of Au Bon Pain – it's too expensive. I really don't know what the exact cost of items are because I don't pay attention to it. But I do know if I get a small side salad and large soup (which really isn't all that large), I'm looking at around nine bucks. If I get a sandwich and chips, I'm looking at around seven or eight bucks. I find this very expensive for lunch – especially given you're not really getting that much food with these orders.
Other Things To Note
If you go in at an off hour, especially a few hours after the lunch rush, be careful about getting the soups. If you get chicken noodle, or corn chowder, or another soup with vegetables or meat, you might find that there is just a lot of broth and not much else in there. Also, a few times I have gotten soups that were not even warm, much less hot, at non-peak hours. So beware of that.
Another thing to avoid is the pre-made baked sandwiches. I got a pre-made backed tuna salad sandwich and I think it must have sat there a long time because it was awful – I think it was baked too long.
The Bottom Line
Basically I rate Au Bon Pain barely average because of the cost and I just don't really care for the type of food they serve. Plus you can get the same thing elsewhere that is just as good or better, and maybe a little cheaper. That, coupled with the discomfort I have with the crowds at peak hours, makes it a place I would typically never go to.
So why do I go there? Because I'm usually in too much of a hurry or too lazy to walk a few blocks to go somewhere else.