One of my favorite places nowadays is Panera Bread. Yeah, it's a chain restaurant, but I don't think that "chain" equals "bad", and in any case, some chains know what they're doing, and Panera seems to have their act down.
Case in point: I'm writing this post at 7:00 pm on Friday night at Panera Bread in my hometown (Orchard Park, NY). Every so often I get the chance to be by myself on a Friday night, and I usually end up coming here (or the one over by McKinley Mall). Why? Well, there's the obvious: food and the free WiFi. But I also love the atmosphere, especially at the one nearest Casa Jaquandor.
I walk in at 6:00, and the dining room is reasonably full. Now, an hour later, the place has emptied out a bit, but it hasn't gone dead. The music is pleasant jazz, and the tables are all comfortable. In warm months there is outdoor seating, but I haven't used any of that yet. The dining room is cast in warm colors -- oranges, blues, mustard yellows and the wood of the chairs, and there are differing styles of tables: a few "intimate" booths, a few booths that aren't quite so intimate, a couple of large round tables beside a gas fireplace, and so on. It's not at all like sitting in a McDonald's, where every table feels the same. (Was there ever anything so bizarre as the old people who sit in the same table at McDonald's every morning?)
What I like best of all about this joint is the mix of people eating here, though. Over here is a table of teenage girls, all laughing giddly as they eat. Over there is an older guy who looks like Leonard Bernstein and who is doing the crossword puzzle so quickly that I half suspect he's just filling in random letters. There's a family over there, mom dad and two kids, with the younger kid jabbering excitedly about how good the tomato soup is. A really pretty girl just walked in with her date, who looks like a complete dork. There's an older couple just two tables over, who are reading books. The wife is reading the book the husband just finished, apparently, because he's taunting her with spoilers. There's a man in his fifties who is sipping coffee and reading some magazine about art, and there's a tall girl with long dark hair who is very skinny and is already wearing her Daisy Dukes. She's tucking into a turkey sandwich, so no metabolism problems for her. And later on, I listen in as the manager on duty gives the incredibly nervous-looking sixteen year old employee his performance review. It's probably the first one of his life. Welcome to the real world, kid.
I'm sitting at a table right by the front window. The sun's not down yet, but it will be soon. It doesn't matter, since the path of its setting precisely lines up with a bunch of tall pines in a row across the street, so I'm not getting blinded (or, worse, suffering glare on the computer screen). It's one of those spring nights where the air is almost crystalline, and the number of clouds in the sky is the number required to call it "partly cloudy", minus one. Earlier, even though the sun was shining, there was a five minute downpour as the cloud overhead apparently decided it could hold back no longer. The sun is now shining on the puddles on the sidewalk which are smaller every minute.
It's a nice night, here at Panera Bread.