I Can Barely Afford To Eat At Panera

eating on the beach in patmos greeceA month ago, I was eating a terrific meal at a taverna right on a lovely beach on the Greek island of Patmos when a perverse thought occurred to me.

“I bet this lunch is cheaper than we’d pay at a Panera, in some strip mall somewhere in the U.S.,” I said to my wife, who was finishing up a carafe of the house red that cost the equivalent of $4.

I made the comment somewhat in jest, but yesterday after having lunch at a Panera in Dekalb, Illinois, I realized that my statement had actually been correct. Here’s a little comparison of two lunches, experienced in very different corners of the world.

Patmos

In Patmos, we dined right on Lambi beach, with a stunning view of the Aegean. We split a half liter of house red wine, had a large bottle of water, two orders of chicken souvlaki, which came with a small salad and fries, and our kids split one order of plain spaghetti. The bill came to the equivalent of $28.50 and we were welcomed to linger and use the taverna’s free Wi-Fi for as long as we liked. Shots of ouzo were offered on the house.Panera

paneraOur Dekalb Panera location offered a panoramic view of strip malls as far as the eye could see, with a Panda Express, a Barnes & Noble, a Starbucks and a Ross all within spitting distance. We ordered one Cuban Panini ($7.89), one chicken cobb avocado salad ($8.69), two kids’ mac and cheese meals, which included small bowls of mac and cheese and some yogurt ($4.99 each) and four glasses of ice water (free).

With tax, the bill came to $29.22 and would have been more like $35 if we’d ordered drinks or desserts. We didn’t have our laptops with us, as we did in Patmos, but Panera has a 30-minute limit on Wi-Fi usage during the lunch rush. The place was packed and there wasn’t a single empty table despite the fact that there were no free shots of ouzo or anything else for that matter.

Scorecard

In fairness to Panera, I like the place and our meal was pretty good, especially for fast food. But the meal in Patmos was far better, both in terms of the quality of the food, the ambience and the service. With tip, the meal in Patmos was actually a bit more expensive but not by much, because in Greece people usually just round up and tips don’t usually exceed 10%.


panera cuban panniniThis is obviously an apples to oranges comparison, but the point is that “upscale” fast food places like Cosi, Noodles & Company, Panera, Corner Bakery and others seem to be getting pretty damn pricey. Getting lunch at any of these places for less than $10 isn’t easy, unless you eat like a bird. According to the Christian Science Monitor, even Taco Bell, perish the thought, is going upscale! What is the world coming to?

But bargains still exist at independent fast food outlets. Last night, my faith in the American non-burger/KFC/Taco Bell/Arby’s fast-food genre was restored at a place called Just Kabobs, in St. Charles, a nice town about an hour west of Chicago. My wife and I both had a chicken kabob platter that included two big skewers of delicious chicken, rice, pita, salad and Greek potatoes, which cost just $5.99 each, and we split a hummus and pita appetizer for only $2.25.

The quality and quantity of food was incredible, and the price was unbeatable. The only thing missing was the beach.

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Five American-style North Korean restaurants for foodies

This may not have been the case a few years ago, but Pyongyang is definitely on its way to becoming a culinary destination … well, maybe not. Nonetheless, it is pretty wild that the self-isolating regime has let slip some pretty wild information about the dining options available in the capital. If you can finagle a way into North Korea and somehow get yourself a bit of freedom to move, there are now some interesting restaurants for you to visit.

Swing an eating trip to Pyongyang, and you may find yourself munching on the familiar. There are several western-style restaurants popping up in this strange city, so eating like a local may mean eating like you’re home.

Let’s take a look at five restaurants in Pyongyang and how you could scarf that grub in style:1. Okryu Restaurant: just opened last week, this soon-to-be hot spot garnered a mention by the Korea Central News Agency, which means its launch was intended to be made public. The claim is that this place can accommodate thousands of customers, so live on the edge and skip making a reservation.

2. Samtaesung:
a relatively new addition to the Pyongyang culinary scene, this burger joint is open 24 hours a day and still recommends making reservations to pick up your food. This is a place to see and be seen, especially if you’re tight with the regime: Kim Jong-il‘s sister, Kim Kyong-hui, is said to benefit personally from all the cash spent there.

3. Pizza (no name given): dine on pies with ingredients shipped in from Naples and Rome. The first North Korean pizza parlor is said to have been created at the request of Kim Jong-il himself, so you know the quality is going to be top notch! So, without a name, how can you expect to find the place? Ask where the pizza joint is; it’s not like there are dozens.

4. Beach (outside the city): get outside of Pyongyang, and you still have some options. In Wonsan, at the beach, you can find even more pizza. Just remember to wait at least 20 minutes before jumping back into the waves!

5. Cubby’s: this is the restaurant that never happened in Pyongyang. Originally the dream of a New Jersey BBQ joint owner, plans to expand Cubby’s to Pyongyang were explored. The owner, Bobby Egan, befriended some North Korean diplomats assigned to the United Nations in New York City and even took a few trips over to his buddies’ homeland. Alas, according to his recent book, the plans for a DPRK franchise never came to fruition.

[photo by John Pavelka via Flickr]

Bring an over-the-door shoe organizer – Hotel tip

One of the biggest frustrations when traveling is staying organized in your hotel room. An over-the-door shoe organizer is one of the most helpful items you can pack.

After you check-in, hang this on the bathroom door and fill it with all of your toiletries or other items – yes, even shoes. The clear plastic variety is the best, so you can see the contents – and so can everyone else in your traveling party.

It works great for toothpaste, toothbrushes, hair brushes/combs, hairspray, aspirin, rain ponchos, etc. Everything is at your fingertips!

Check the alarm upon arrival – Hotel tip

I don’t know if it’s the maid setting the room’s alarm clock as a prank, or the occupants prior to my stay. In any case, too many times I have been abruptly awakened to a blaring alarm or loud music booming at my head from the nightstand.

Not the best way to start off a relaxing vacation.

Therefore, it’s become my custom to check — and turn off! — the room-provided alarm clock when I first arrive so there will not be any surprises at dawn. Or worse: at pre-dawn.

[Photo: Flickr | Robert S. Donovan]