Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
I have fond memories of Pret A Manger (which means "ready to eat" in French, oui oui!). About six years ago, I was visiting a friend in London on a shoestring budget, sleeping on his couch, trying to see as much of London as I could in four days. I didn't have much money, and eating fancy food was completely out of the question. And that's when I discovered Pret A Manger, which was seemingly everywhere. I was able to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner there in the form of pre-assembled sandwiches. They were convenient, used fresh ingredients, and were always ready to go.
When I first saw Pret pop up in Chicago, all those great travel memories sprang back in full bloom. The sandwiches I remembered were finally here. Don't get me wrong; Pret is just an extremely quick-serve sandwich restaurant. You can be in and out within two minutes, which is perfect for office folks rushing to their next meeting. The ingredients have always been high quality, especially for a volume shop, too.
Pret's Famous Ham and Cheese ($6.99) is my usual go-to. It starts with Niman Ranch ham, Swiss cheese, greens, mustard, and mayo, and is served on a chewy baguette. The ham actually has a meaty substance to it, rather than the liquid-injected kind you get at most fast-food delis. There's not too much of it, but there's enough for the flavor to really come through. The mesclun greens are bitter in a fresh way, and give the sandwich a kick of flavor. My only gripe is that the sandwich is a touch dry, since the thick baguette is dense.
The chicken mozzarella baguette ($6.99) is a simple sandwich of roast chicken, mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, and greens, on the same baguette as the ham sandwich. The roast chicken at Pret is, like the ham, of better quality than mass-produced deli chicken. It's cut in chunks rather than shaved, and has some genuine honest-to-goodness chicken flavor. The sandwich really needs some vinaigrette to add moisture and flavor, but you can buy some on the side for $0.75.
Along with the large array of sandwiches, there are a handful of pre-made salads, too. The chicken avocado salad ($7.49) is a classic combo of chicken, walnuts, dried cranberries, tomatoes, and a lot of avocado, all resting on mixed greens. It's fairly light, if you're calorie conscious (all the menu items have calories listed, if you need that information). It's exactly what you'd expect from those ingredients, and the bitter greens give the salad a distinct, in-your-face flavor.
The quinoa salad ($2.99) is surprisingly good and substantial for being in a cute little cup. The quinoa has a pretty good chew to it, rather than being overcooked like baby food at other places I've been. It's topped with a sliced hard-boiled egg, which gives it more protein. It'd make a good afternoon snack, if you're so inclined.
One of the things my coworkers swear by is the lentil soup—something to keep in mind. I didn't have it on my visit, but since they love it so much, I think it's worth a mention.
As you can see, though, the prices at Pret are pretty steep. $6.99 for a ham sandwich is asking a lot, especially when you can get a bigger one at Cafecito's new location nearby on Wells, but there's that time factor. Cafecito is always packed at lunch. So in terms of speed and healthiness, Pret will do you in a pinch as long as you're willing to shell out your hard-earned dough for something better than a fast mediocre sandwich chain.