Slideshow SLIDESHOW: We Try the Whole Menu at Pret a Manger

[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

Pret a Manger

UK-based chain with nearly 30 locations in New York City (map); additional locations in Chicago and D.C.; pret.com/us
Service: Largely self-service with friendly, efficient counterfolk
Setting: Clean, modern-looking storefronts with huge refrigerated cases
Compare It To: Cosi, Panera, 'wichcraft, Hale and Hearty
Must-Haves: Ham sandwich, roast beef arugula baguette, chocolate chip cookie
Cost: Lunches, $5 to 10
Curious about the drinks? Read all about 'em »
Grade: As pre-made foods go: B+

Pret A Manger is the sort of chain-but-better, like Chipotle or Starbucks, beloved by urbanities who would never confess to loving McDonald's or KFC. That it started out in London might have something to do with it; so too might the perception of Pret as a benevolent enterprise, one that has spread over major metropolitan areas but isn't really fast food. Privately owned and committed to (in their words) "avoiding the obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives common to so much of the 'prepared' and 'fast' food on the market today," they're easier to think of as a health-minded, "real food"-minded sandwich shop that just happens to have hundreds of locations.

And then there's the convenience factor. What distinguishes Pret from other lunch spots are their huge refrigerated grab-and-go cases. Sandwiches, salads, and the like are attractively wrapped and displayed, made throughout the day, waiting for you to pick up and purchase. Their focus on higher-quality pre-made food makes them perfect for anyone on a 10-minute lunch break; it's no accident that Pret's New York locations are concentrated entirely in office-heavy areas like Midtown and the Financial District.

So they're popular, they're convenient, and for the most part, they're a lot healthier than standard fast-food offerings. But we wanted to know: what's really worth ordering at Pret a Manger? We tasted the entire menu* to find out.

*Well, just about. Pret's menu rotates seasonally, and varies by location. But we visited a half-dozen Prets, a number of times, to bring you the broadest possible look we could.

The Baguettes

You could guess, without ever stopping by a Pret, what this bread tastes like; nothing good has ever come of a refrigerated baguette. On top of that, the crumb is a bit dense and cottony for our taste; it's not airy and light like an ideal baguette. That said, how good your bread is at Pret is partially the luck of the draw; grab a baguette sandwich that's actually just made, and the outside has more crispness, the inside is less tough. The longer it sits, the worse it is.

Beyond the bread? The fillings vary wildly. Some of our favorites were the Roast Beef and Parmesan Baguette (small, $3.49), a few salted, peppered pieces of roast beef nicely complemented by sharp Parmesan and arugula; the Famous Ham and Cheese Baguette (small, $3.49) is a good pick, too, a restrained and well-balanced amount of applewood-smoked ham, Swiss cheese, baby leaf lettuce, and mustard-mayo. You'll note that neither has tomato; our least favorite sandwiches, across all of our tasters, were those with pink, mealy tomato slices. Sure, you expect Subway or McDonald's to slap mediocre tomatoes on their buns all year long, but why on earth does a sandwich shop with a seasonally rotating menu insist on having so many sandwiches with sub-par tomato?

The Sandwiches

Since soft white and wheat breads generally fare better with a quick stint in the refrigerator than crusty bread does, we found these sandwiches, for the most part, better than their baguette counterparts. Among our favorites? The Smoked Ham & Egg ($4.99), the egg adding richness to the salty sandwich, and the Smoked Ham & Parmesan ($5.99), a slick of mayo bringing the moist ham and parmesan shavings together. (For the most part, we approved of Pret's cheese choices; sharp accompaniments to whatever meat they're paired with, not just huge, mild slices.) They do avocado well, too: the Chicken Avocado & Balsamic (small, $3.59) paired buttery, very ripe avocado with reasonably tender white meat and enough balsamic to enliven those relatively mild flavors.

The Wraps

Italian Margherita Hot Wrap ($5.99)

Pret's hot wraps, kept warm in trays, are a little unfortunate, like dry mini-burritos; the stiff tortilla inevitably detracts from the filling. The Spicy Grilled Chicken Hot Wrap ($6.95) was our favorite—hardly spicy, but pretty tasty, as long as you like red peppers. The less appealing wraps were confused by ingredients that didn't quite belong together. The Falafel and Grilled Pepper Hot Wrap ($6.95) started off on a bad foot with dry, unattractive falafel balls, further hampered by a wedge of cheese on the bottom that seemed out of place.

We actually preferred the refrigerated "Salad Wraps," whose soft flour tortillas were thin and chewy and almost disappeared, rather than adding a stiff crunch that brought the whole thing down. The Avocado Pine Nut Wrap combined their ripe avocado with pine nuts, basil, and parmesan for something that tasted like a fresh, nutty pesto; the Shrimp and Cilantro, while not helped by their sweet chili dressing, had reasonably tender shrimp and a nice, fresh crunch from cucumber and cilantro.

The Toasties

Ham, Cheese, and Mustard Toastie ($6.29)

Kept in a refrigerated case but panini-pressed to order, these were, as a sandwich family, far better than the wraps. Once again, the Niman Ranch applewood-smoked ham won us over; the Ham, Cheese, and Mustard Toastie ($6.29) was the best of the lot. Though we appreciate Pret's judicious use of cheese, we could've used a little more of the melty stuff here. Still, with wheaty bread that gets a nice outside crunch, it's a strong sandwich. Again, sadly, the tomatoes on the other toasties dragged them down; bad tomato doesn't get any better when warm.

The Salads

The raw materials of Pret's salads are great: crisp, fresh-tasting mixed greens, slices of Murray's chicken breast that stay reasonably moist and chewable, vegetables that aren't wilted or brown (more than you can say for most pre-packed salads out there). And they don't skimp on the good stuff: you'll find a decent amount of chicken, or avocado, or tuna on top. It's their dressings we found a problem. Stick with the Caesar (if that salad's your choice) or the simple vinaigrette; though nothing too exciting, it's an awful lot better than the sweet, fruity lemon-shallot or wildberry vinaigrettes.

The Chicken & Avocado Salad ($7.49) is a good bet, with generous, buttery chunks of avocado; so is the Chicken Caesar Salad ($7.49), with big shavings of Parmesan. The Super Health & Hummus Salad ($7.99) had a number of nice components, including a delicious and very heavily salted-and-peppered- butternut squash puree we loved, but we couldn't imagine mushing it all together with dressing; it was more of a "good stuff on lettuce" platter than a salad.

The Soups

Soups

Rotating daily, they range from unremarkable (a salty, mushy-pasta-ed Chicken Noodle, a simple curry-powder-in-coconut-milk Malaysian Chicken) to quite good (Moroccan Lentil, its plump green lentils well-integrated in a stew of carrots, turnips, and onions). A pumpkin bisque strikes a nice balance between creamy and light, well-seasoned if simple. Even the miso soup was quite tasty.

The Treats and Sides

Cookies

Cookies are all kept warm at the counter, which goes a long way towards keeping the soft-middled, crisp-edged guys appealing. The oat-cranberry-walnut-raisin Harvest Cookie and the chocolate-macadamia-coconut "Coco-Nut" taste about like they sound, but the Chocolate Chunk cookie, its chocolate dark and melty, is still our favorite. You'll also find pre-wrapped bars at the counter. The brownies are dark and fudgy; the fruit and oat bar, somewhere at the intersection of a granola bar and an oatmeal cookie, dessert-y and soft. We preferred both to the "Love Bar" (with about ten too many ingredients crammed in) or the sweet, jammy raspberry bar. And Serious Eats overlord Ed Levine loves their popcorn. Our drinks department also investigated the drinks, and especially liked the ginger beer, black tea and lemonade blend, and the apple cranberry juice.

See everything we tasted in the slideshow above »

The Verdict?

Really, the question you have to ask about Pret a Manger is this: are these sandwiches tastier, cheaper, or more convenient than those at your closest corner deli? In our case, it varied. Pret does have quite a few things going for it: it's fast and efficient, even at rush hours; its sandwiches are reasonably sized and accordingly priced. (Plenty of us would rather pay $3.50 for a half-sized sandwich than $9 for a monster we can't even try to finish.) And plenty of them are worth returning for: the roast beef-Parm baguette, the ham-and-cheese toastie. We can't say that we loved everything we tried at Pret; but we're glad that we've found our favorites and refined our plan of attack.

See everything we tasted in the slideshow above »

Are you a Pret a Manger fan? What are your favorites there?

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