Pubs are funny old places aren’t they? They come in all shapes and sizes and range from the pokey to the prodigious, with huge varieties of food, drink and punters to match. Recently though, this article in The Times reviewing a trip to the British institution that is JD Wetherspoon received a lot of criticism for a supposed pre-emptive snobbishness and for taking a stack of cheap shots at the chain. It does feel like there are two sides to this story though, so it’s only right to explore things a little deeper.
My relationship with ‘Spoons’ goes back to nights at The Full Moon in Bristol, when we’d go to The Berkeley at the top of Park Street for a warm-up bottle of Budweiser for 99p beforehand. Okay, so it was 1997 but that’s decent value in anyone’s book. The pub itself is, like many a Wetherspoon, an impressively ornate building, full of history (supposedly haunted by a ghostly highwayman) and gets a decent atmosphere at weekends, if on occasion it can get a little rough and ready. I’ve not been back for a long, long time, but with it being a Wetherspoon I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear it’s exactly the same as it was 20 years ago.
And that’s the thing with a Wetherspoon, you know exactly what you’re getting, whether that’s a ridiculously sized breakfast for about a fiver, or a quick and dirty burger when you need fuel before a big night or a gig. The ale choice is excellent, it’s an area the company have really focused on in recent years, and the lager is the cheapest you’re likely to find in any town centre so it’s no surprise these pubs tend to draw big crowds, encouraged in by a blind eye to big groups who take great delight in rearranging the furniture to suit their needs. They’ve even relaxed and adapted a few of their policies over the years and sometimes you’ll actually get (gasp) music in there, or maybe even a TV showing a bit of sport if you’re lucky.
The chain should also be praised for its innovation, producing an app which is almost too easy to use and seems to allow the lazy to jump the queue, leaving punters at the bar bemused. I hadn’t used it before this weekend, but ordering two pints, a chilli and scampi and chips from the comfort of my table was effortless, despite the sheer volume of menu options to choose from. Paying with Apple Pay, the drinks were brought swiftly and the food was piping, if basic. Yes, it’s no surprise to hear that the rice with the chilli was still bag-shaped, presumably having been micro-zapped and plopped onto my plate moments earlier, although the chilli itself was rich and served its purpose.
You pay for what you get is an old adage but never has it been truer than with regards Wetherspoon. The staff tend to be short in number, tables are left with piles of dirty plates and glasses on them as staff meander about, not really caring about the place’s general upkeep (I imagine they expect punters to clear things away as well as helping themselves to the refillable coffee). In fact I thought I was going to have to serve myself a pint in Wolverhampton where a solitary staff member attempted to make jugs of midday cocktails, then change up £40-worth of £1 coins (with her manager’s permission), as well as serving pints of sticky Strongbow and a couple of Sunday lunchtime Baileys. Yep, it was that sort of clientele she was having to deal with. In fact, it took so long to serve the three people before me, I gave up and left. I doubt they cared, it’s one less thing for them to have to do, and they can’t be making much money from me when I was drinking beer that cost me less than £2 a pint.
Wetherspoon is certainly a morning-after-the night-before kind of place. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve hit one of the two Spoons in Huddersfield after a messy night (and morning) at The Parish and just needed to get stodge down my neck as quickly as is humanly possible. They’re always busy, with stags and hens still tottering around after the previous night’s exploits, laden with suitcases as they contemplate their hungover trips home. This doesn’t stop them taking down a morning sharpener and as with airport departure lounges, Wetherspoon pubs seem to be one of the few places where it’s acceptable to imbibe before the clocks hit double figures. You might also stumble upon the band you saw the previous night taking down a cheap and cheerful breakfast before heading onto the next date of their tour. It’s convenient, you’ll always find one in a town centre, and when working to a budget it ticks more boxes than it crosses.
Was The Times review fair? If you’ve ever been to a Wetherspoon, you’ll recognise many of the traits outlined, but in a way that’s all part of the charm, if indeed you can call it that. Nobody has ever visited a Wetherspoon pub expecting Michelin Star food or Silver Service, you go in knowing that your meal will pretty much get thrown at you, but you’ll be the one smiling when you’ve still got ample change in your pocket when you leave the premises. If you don’t like it, don’t go. If you need a cheap quick fix, then go along and get one. One thing’s for sure, it’s always an experience.