McAlister's Vs Panera: Which One Is Better?

When hunger slugs you squarely in the gut and only soup-and-sandwich-style dining will satisfy the pangs, there's a decision to be made: Will you wander into McAlister's and sidle up to the counter for some old-fashioned deli delights, or will you head for the closest Panera and settle in for a modern-day bakery situation? True, each restaurant offers some of the finest brunch and lunch offerings on the fast-casual scene. And both eateries are known for whipping up fresh feasts that diehards crave and new fans rave about. But in every culinary clash between rival outlets, there's a better-than and an also-ran. It's important to know which is which.

To learn the truth about McAlister's offerings when compared to the selections at Panera's, we took a spin through both spots and did some choice ordering to find out for ourselves how the fare compares. Between the deli and the bakery, which outlet brings the better bites to the table? Which outlet gives you a bigger and better bang for your buck? With some of the most appetizing options from each restaurant chosen for a side-by-side sampling, our collective tastebuds got down to business to make a most delicious determination.

There are differences between the menus

At first glance, the menus at McAlister's and Panera look pretty similar. Both chains present an array of sandwiches stacked to the sky and salads filled with garden-fresh fixings. There are soups, side dishes, baked goods, and beverages as well, all with mouthwatering descriptions designed to capture a hungry diner's attention. While McAlister sticks with more traditional deli dishes for its selection of usual options, Panera plays it bakery-safe by presenting an array of bread, bagels, and sweets to tempt their visitors. While there is overlap in many of the sections, the presentation is decidedly different for each. The overall effect makes for close competition — though diners can find something unique to enjoy at each, making it possible to be both McAlister's aficionado and a Panera fanatic.

But this is a challenge to see which comes out on top, so the differences must be discerned. To keep the competition as fair as possible, we ordered a Choose Two deal from each restaurant and kept things simple with the soup and sandwich combo. Then, we added a salad, side, dessert, and drink from the a la carte options. The resulting selections were comparable in size and quality.


A wealth of deli-style delights made it difficult to choose the best sandwich at McCalister's. Overall, the sandwich menu includes creative takes on timeless favorites like BLTs and club sandwiches — though the selection is modest. The Panera sandwich menu does an admirable job with its own creations, most notably the hot baguette sandwiches and the Signature Take chicken sandwiches. With both restaurants, all choices from the menu are fair game when assembling a two-fer meal mix-up, with half-sandwiches setting the standard for portion size. Each of the combos came out to $12, a point that made our comparison cleaner.

Choosing two relatively similar dishes, we went with the club sandwich from McAlister's and the deli turkey half-sandwich from Panera. The visual difference was striking ... Panera really works the photography angle on its menus to make the sandwiches look sleek and seductive. McAlister's takes a more straightforward approach, which is deceptively humble when compared to the food served. It wasn't just the appearance; the thoughtful stack of deli slices, cheese, and toppings on McAlister's club was more flavorful and enjoyable to eat than the simple turkey sandwich from Panera. The deli also delivered a slightly greater quantity of food.


When it comes to selections from the kettle, the McAlister's soup menu is as trim as the sandwich list. Six possibilities make it easy to zero in on a clear pick whether it's a ladle of chicken tortilla or a bowl of veggie chili. And while there's reason to believe the food at Panera isn't as fresh as you might think, the Panera soup menu has a lot to offer. From chicken noodle to tikka masala, there's an enticing range of recipes that make great add-ons to a sandwich-soup combination. As part of the choose-two arrangement, we received a cup of soup, the smallest quantity available from both outlets.

To shake things up a bit, we opted for an old-fashioned potato soup from McAlister's and a creamy chicken with wild rice soup from Panera, which gave us a greater taste of what the restaurants are cooking up. The comforting potato chowder from McAlister's was rich and creamy, a perfect accent to the sandwich in the combo. The soup from Panera wasn't the worst thing we've ever paid to eat, but it didn't have enough oomph to push the bakery ahead of the deli in the race to win our hungry hearts.


Salads are obvious fare for both restaurants — though a deli might have a distinct advantage over a bakery in this arena. McAlister's salads are robust and filled with fresh leaves and flavorful toppings. Panera salads are passable and might stand on their own as decent dining. The question of which restaurant goes beyond the garden variety greens to share a bounty of plant-forward dining came down to not what the formula consists of — but how much care goes into the composition. It's a salad, after all. How difficult could it be to get it right?

The selections on the menu are different enough to make choosing a bit of a puzzle. We went international with Panera and picked out a Greek Salad, filled with grape tomatoes, red onions, and kalamata olives, for $8.29. Keeping things more domestic at McAlister's, we went with the Garden Salad, priced at $7.99. While both were fresh and flavorful, McAlister's blew Panera away by filling the box with croutons, cheddar, cucumbers, and a zingy cilantro lime dressing. All this for .30 less than Panera's fair attempt at a Greek salad. The difference was notable from all aspects — price, presentation, and enjoyment.


The search for comparable sides proved to be the most difficult part of the task. McAlister's is killing the side dish game, with options that make sense for a deli though the selection is slim. Simple tomato salads and fruit cups seem too basic, but mac and cheese and Caesar salads do bring in a bit of panache. Panera, on the other hand, offers quite a few in their Sides and Spreads though some of these are flavored cream cheese meant for bread and bagels — not so hot for a varied meal. We worked through the disappointment

For side selections from Panera, we put the bakery to the test and opted for the fresh baguette. The potato salad we chose from McAlister's proved to be lacking in flavor, an unexpected disappointment considering the high quality of our other items. The cup we received was generous for the $2.49 price point, but the taste just didn't cut the mustard — or maybe it did cut the mustard when it shouldn't have. As part of the Choose Two deal, our Panera baguette added nothing to the total meal price and brought us all kinds of happy bread-lover vibes. Bravo to the bakery!


Who would expect anything less than delicious things from the Panera dessert menu? The quality and fun variety of the company's cookies is a hallmark of its operation, with minis making their way into party spreads and office break rooms on the regular. Panera also offers pastries, muffins, and scones that end a meal nicely. The real revelation in this restaurant round-up is the dessert selection at McAlister's. Cookies and cheesecake share a star-studded sweets menu with brookie bars and carrot cake.

Hoping to keep all sweets equal, we chose a $2 lemon drop cookie from Panera and a $2.99 lemon blueberry cookie from McAlister's. The advantage was squarely with Panera and its cookie reputation, but the bakery crumbled under the weight of the formidable McAlister's treat. A fresher lemon flavor, crunchy crystal sugar, and real blueberry bits put the deli's desserts far ahead in the race for dining domination. The tender texture of the dough made the cookie literally melt in our mouths. Panera gave less lemon flavor and a powdered sugar topping that felt forced. We were as surprised as anyone to award Best Dessert in the Deal to McAlister's. Now we know how this cookie crumbles.


Skipping the soda fountain for fresher possibilities, we found the array of iced teas at both restaurants to be a refreshing change. McAlister's drinks include the company's famous tea, featuring orange pekoe black tea and passionberry tea, which is sweetened with both a puree of strawberries and passionfruit-flavored syrup. Panera drinks line-up also included a passionfruit and papaya green tea, a stand-out among the restaurant's extensive list of creative beverages and smoothies.

There's no question that Panera outdoes McAlister's in the realm of refreshment. Both teas may have rung up at $3.09, and McAlister's may have outsized Panera by at least two to one, but while McAlister's tea was just alright, Panera provided a drink that was dynamite. The juicy blend of passion and papaya made friends with the grassy green tea for a light yet satisfying sip. When it was gone, and we were still sipping away at the much larger McAlister's cup, we found ourselves longing for the more thoughtful formula offered by the bakery. Quantity may have been part of the consideration here, but quality won by a landslide. Or a waterfall. A flash flood? Whatever the liquid equivalent of a landslide is, that's what Panera's tea won by.

The verdict: McAlister's offers better fare

We were hoping the heat would be more even, considering the tasty pedigrees presented by both McAlister's and Panera and their respective spectrums of spectacular dining. Imagine our surprise when our $27.57 worth of McAlister's food emerged as the clear winner. Though the deli slacked on sides, it more than made up for lost ground with a sumptuous salad, an eye-opening sandwich, a soup to hunger for, and a dessert that couldn't be denied. By comparison, at $30.56, Panera offered a standard-yet-underwhelming meal for a few bucks more — not truly shame-worthy, but nowhere near as dazzling as what the deli has to share. Even the desserts, which should be the bakery's slam dunk, fell flat.

It's possible that we inadvertently chose the most amazing option from each section of the menu at McAlister's, tipping the scales in the deli's favor. Every diner has to make choices that make sense for their tastes, which means there's a practically endless variety of combinations that could put either restaurant out in front. All we know is that we made our choices, and we're sticking by them. In this arrangement, McAlister's takes the top prize between the two.