The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

One Night at the 24/7 Hospital Panera Bread

The best-kept secret for hungry UChicago night owls
One Night at the 24/7 Hospital Panera Bread

“Lots of nutritious food for you here,” remarked an employee of the Bernard A. Mitchell Hospital building as he directed me to the Panera Bread past the control desk. His comment was a bit disorienting. Although it was my first time going to a Panera Bread, I never imagined that a fast casual chain would serve “nutritious” food. Was he being sarcastic or genuine? Was he subtly alluding to the bakery’s popularity amongst undergraduates?

The 24/7 Panera Bread is a popular spot for night owls on UChicago’s campus. Despite not being in an area popular with undergraduates, as well as not accepting Maroon Dollars, the franchise remains a known secret amongst students. On a typical weekend night, it brings together very dissimilar groups of the university’s community: exhausted hospital employees and undergraduates on a late-night adventure.

I arrived at around 10 p.m. on a Friday, which for most sit-down restaurants in Hyde Park would be nearing closing time. At nine, Medici’s is quick to retire; Harold’s Chicken on 53rd closes before 10 most days; Red Snapper is one of few restaurants to stay open late, all the way until two in the morning on Saturday and Sundays. Of course, there remains the University’s Midway Market and Maroon “Bart Mart” Market which are open until one, but those are hardly sit-down restaurants that serve warm food. Moreover, while anything past midnight is conventionally thought to be a late closing time, for the students of “the most caffeinated school in the United States,” 1 a.m. is far too early. Beyond running only four nights a week, never accommodating nightlife, fourth meal is also quick to close for a meal service situated on a college campus. Past midnight, hungry students looking for hearty food are either compelled to make a strenuous trek outside of campus or splurge on expensive food delivery services like Uber Eats or DoorDash. The only option left, then, is the Panera Bread, right in the heart of the UChicago Medical Campus.

The Panera Bread has a welcoming quality to it. It doesn’t have a door, walls, nor a singular entrance or exit. The restaurant, if you can still use that word for an establishment so devoid of structure, is seamlessly integrated into the building. Throughout my night in Panera, dozens of busy hospital workers make quick pit stops at the Panera Bread, rarely staying for longer than 10 minutes, and mostly leaving after refilling their water bottles at the drink bar.

If I wanted to stay here a whole five hours, my night would go until 4 a.m., so I knew I needed a lot of caffeine to get through the journey. I used the monitor to order a $4.29 Mango Yuzu Citrus Charged Lemonade, which had a pronounced “CONTAINS CAFFEINE” disclaimer in wake of the two deaths it caused and subsequent lawsuits. 

Containing 157 milligrams of caffeine in a single serving (almost three times the amount of caffeine in a shot of espresso) in addition to 51 grams of sugar (adults are generally recommended to consume no more than 36 grams of sugar in a day), the beverage is better likened to a synthetic, near explosive energy drink than your traditional lemonade stand lemonade. I’m not a heavy coffee drinker (yet—I’m only a first-year), so I assumed the hyper-caffeinated drink was all I needed to get me through the night. I was right: after only an hour and having had a third of it, I was restless—tapping my fingers and nearly unable to sit still. I had five hours to finish the drink. I did not dare to drink more than half of it.

It wasn’t too odd to be alone the entire night; I always find it somewhat enjoyable to be eating alone. It was in many ways a great opportunity to recollect my thoughts. Since it was a Friday night, most of my friends were hanging out, gathered in someone’s dorm. I had declined to go but invited them to join me for an hour or so at some time that night. They bluntly declined.

Although I didn’t see any patients in ambulance stretchers or any medical emergency, nor did I hear the sound of ambulances from outside, being situated in the hospital was sobering. I constantly wondered what the doctors and nurses walking around were doing—if they were in distressing situations—making me hesitant to approach or bother them with questions. The Mitchell Hospital doesn’t seem to have a very specific medical specialty: UChicago Medicine’s website lists 35 different services the Mitchell Hospital provides, ranging from critical care medicine to dermatology. The hospital’s trauma center—servicing those facing life-threatening bullet wounds—is only a four-minute walk north.

I noted the array of posters around the Panera Bread. One advertisement celebrating the many hospital employees read “CHAMPIONS OF CARE.” In the midst of making observations, I also found time to read the book I had checked out from the library: Abbas Milani’s The Shah, a detailed biography of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the former Shah of Iran.

The soundscape is largely dominated by the constant whirring of the refrigerator apparatus. Any conversation that was more than three or four feet away from me was mostly perceptible as only vowels. I even had a hard time hearing people I was in conversation with. 

Rafaela Grieco-Freeman and Garrett Chalfin—both first-year students in The College—arrived a little before midnight. This was Rafaela’s second time coming to the Panera Bread, Garrett’s first. “It’s more homely,” said Grieco-Freeman, comparing the Panera Bread to the Maroon Market, one of the few other campus spots still open at the time. 

It seems for many students, a late-night Panera Bread visit isn’t about its accessibility at late hours, but rather the environment it provides. Desolate at midnight hours, it lacks its own atmosphere, giving students the opportunity to populate the area with their energy. “It feels like a cafeteria at 9 a.m.,” Chalfin said. 

After midnight, the area received a slew of new customers, talking loudly and laughing. “It’s a little uncanny. We’re college students. We’re eating grilled cheese. And we’re looking at ‘the champions of care [poster].’” Chalfin also seemed to take notice of the large poster on the wall. “It’s a weird environment. This is a good spot for a late-night college experience.”

At around 12:30 a.m., the platoon of undergraduates left, presumably for another “late-night college experience,” and the Panera Bread returned to its desolate default state: hospital employees walking in and out, sometimes engaged in indistinct conversation. In the fleeting lull of activity, I remembered again that I was in the hospital. I got back to reading The Shah. 

The cafe, as suggested by its location, mainly serves hospital workers. An hour after midnight I spoke to a hospital employee. “It’s a chill hangout spot,” the employee remarked. Besides that, there wasn’t that much praise for the cafe itself. “Their food is not that good sometimes. I mean, it’s decent if you want to sit down.” 

After two o’clock, the cafe saw another influx of students. The first batch of students who arrived before midnight were far more energetic—the somber hospital lobby populated by giddy college students, nearly yelling at each other and laughing loudly. This new batch was far more tame: after sitting down, some students were resisting the urge to fall asleep. One pair of students immediately occupied a seat after arriving and pretty much started lying atop each other.

I spoke to one trio of latecomers, who requested to remain anonymous. I had been suspecting that they’d come from a party, as they’d spent almost ten minutes in front of the monitor ordering their food. 

“We came from a party,” they confirmed when I asked. When I asked why they came, one of them said “the chicken sandwich.” 

It was at about this time that I decided I was hungry and ordered a Creamy Tomato Soup with bread for $7.74—more than I’d usually care to pay for soup, but after hours, beggars cannot be choosers, and that is far cheaper than any DoorDash order. I tried ordering it through the cashier, but for some reason the card reader wouldn’t take my card, so I ended up ordering it through the monitor again.

In addition to the hearty food, the night had gotten late enough to the point where pretty much nothing else was open in Hyde Park. I noticed a sizable difference between my interview with the new late-comers and my previous interview. My conversation with Chalfin and Grieco-Freeman was more dynamic, as we remarked on the peculiarities of the Panera Bread and explained the trajectories of our nights. This interview was far shorter. Perhaps, trying to hold a coherent conversation with a stranger at two in the morning is too much to ask for: none of us had the energy to delve deep into the essence of late-night college experiences.

After finishing the soup, I realized that I was just exhausted and needed to get back to my dorm. It wasn’t so much that the Charged Lemonade had started to wear off, but I believe at a certain point no amount of caffeine can diminish genuine feelings of exhaustion. At my youthful age of eighteen, my muscles felt strained and my joints tired from sitting for so long. At 2:24 a.m., I ended my night early, throwing the remains of my soup and lemonade in the trash, and leaving the partygoers and hospital workers behind. 

Correction: The Subway location on 53rd St. is the one other 24-hour restaurant in Hyde Park.

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    Josie / Feb 16, 2024 at 2:04 am

    Very enjoyable read!

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