The Pub as Quasi-Happy Eater

Good George Pacific PearlOur local Wetherspoon’s isn’t a very good one. It rarely has anything other than Doom Bar, Ruddles or Greene King IPA on offer, usually a degree or two too warm, served in an ambience that brings to mind a faux-pub on a cross channel ferry. We pop in from time to time, though, just in case something exciting might be available and, yesterday, we were tempted to stop for a couple of pints from the international beer festival range.

Pacific Pearl, brewed by Good George of New Zealand (Kelly Ryan (PDF link)) was very good indeed though, yes, a bit warm. A sort of a black IPA or citrusy porter, like an oily Terry’s Chocolate Orange melted in a very posh coffee, it was certainly worth £2.15. Fly by Night, brewed by the chap from La Trappe in the Netherlands, on the other hand, was all sweaty socks and cardboard — bad rather than off, we think. Swings and roundabouts, eh?

As we drank, we talked about why, apart from the beer, we didn’t like the pub. Our conclusion: it feels like a fast food restaurant with some pub-like features — very convenient and obviously good value, but naff. Then, coincidentally, last night, we came across this passage in the 1985 CAMRA Good Beer Guide, on the subject of Host Group, Grand Met/Watney’s newly announced pub chain:

‘The Host packaged pub enterprise is as much of a threat to those who love individuality and consumer choice, as the packaged beer phenomenon was in the last two decades,’ says Peter Lerner of CAMRA’s Pub Preservation Group. ‘We cannot let our pubs decline to become chains of look-alike quasi-Happy Eater, Kentucky Fried Chicken bars or motorway service stations.’

A quasi-Happy Eater is a very good description of our local JDW.

28 thoughts on “The Pub as Quasi-Happy Eater”

  1. Always amazes me how branches of JDW can vary so much, even in the same town. Holborn in That London has The Shakespeares Head (Excrable) and Penderel’s Oak (Very Good) within about a mile of each other.

  2. The same is true of course of most of the modern chain dining pubs, which are seen as a major growth area by Greene King and Marston’s. In effect they are family-oriented informal restaurants with a pub theme.

    From what I’ve seen, many of Spoons’ latest openings are more like a recently smartened up McDonalds in their decor than anything you would recognise as a pub. Bright primary and pastel colours, light wood or tubular metal furnishings, geometric floor designs.

  3. The genius of Spoons is that they hit so many targets at once: they’re family-oriented dining pubs, but with good beer for tickers, cheap beer for people who want to get tanked up, and (in the evening) a ‘lively’, ‘sociable’ atmosphere, reminiscent of a hotel bar when a coach trip’s in. The one thing they’re not is cool, and I think that’s by design as well.

    I had a bit of an unsatisfactory experience at a Spoons’ last night; the atmosphere is relaxed but not relaxing, and it can get a bit much. But I’d rather be surrounded by lively & sociable ordinary people on lager or Ruddles than lively & sociable hipsters necking craft beer, for the simple reason that the hipsters are typically younger & louder. (Ideally I’d rather not be surrounded by anyone, which I also achieved last night.)

  4. TIW — unfortunately, we’ve only ever lived/worked near crap ones. The Drum, Leyton, is a hole, for example.

    Curmudgeon — that sounds like ours. Very plasticky, designed for food service rather than cosiness.

    Phil — “they’re family-oriented dining pubs, but with good beer for tickers, cheap beer for people who want to get tanked up, and (in the evening) a ‘lively’, ‘sociable’ atmosphere” — except ours doesn’t have good beer, and, though it’s often busy, doesn’t seem especially sociable either. No-one goes to a fast food joint to socialise. The Dock, the Blue Anchor and the Star Inn, on the other hand, are all great places for a spontaneous conversation with a stranger.

    1. Surprised about the beer – I wouldn’t say I’ve never been into a Spoons without good beer, but I can genuinely only think of a couple.

      Not sure whether you’re actually disagreeing with me re the atmosphere – I didn’t say the ‘sociable’ atmosphere was one that made me feel sociable, or even comfortable. You do get the impression that quite a lot of other people are letting their hair down, though.

      1. IME most Spoons have OK beer, few have what I would really call “good” beer. It often seems as though it has been drawn through a very long pipe from the cellar. And I’ve been in Spoons where even getting a clear pint has been a major achievement.

        1. Had a long chat with a barman/cellarman at another pub on this subject. He drinks in Spoons in PZ for, I think, financial reasons, and said that the beer has got a lot better recently as they’ve done some work in the cellar. Still slightly too warm, though, and certainly not *impressive*, even when not bad.

          In short, there’s better beer to be had elsewhere.

  5. Went to spoons last night for the first time in a year or so, as a last, last, last resort because everywhere else that did food after 8pm in Lincoln was fully booked.
    Exactly as we expected, food was cheap but mediocre, beer was ok but served far too warm. We quickly drank up and left.

    Someone said spoons is a pub for people who don’t like pubs – might even have been Sir Tim himself. I think that about sums it up. I quite like pubs, therefore, I dislike Wetherspoons.

  6. Had a Fly By Night at the Spoons pub in Barkingside and it was lovely, so possibly downtown bad cellaring than poor brewing. Have to say the aforementioned Spoons is an oasis of well-kept beer in an East London/Essex borderland that’s renowned as a real ale desert.

    I so agree there are some Spoons that are ghastly, but my overall impressions of many Spoons is there are generally more good than bad.

  7. Woo a shit spoons. There’s an original subject for a beer blog post. As a national branded chain, they are always going top be dismissed by those that like individual small businesses.

    Some Spoons are crap, a lot of them are quite nice. My observation is that if you pick pubs at random it is a better bet than most regional brewery offers & all other pub co’s.

    But because they have branded their offer and established a model they apply consistently they stand out.

      1. No more than usual, fellas. But you know. The not liking the Spoons visit is one of the many tired old tropes of beer blogging. There must be a million variations on it. All of which can be summed with, if you don’t like the Spoons offer, they are clearly branded, steer clear. If you like them but find a crap one, the signs are clear the minute you walk in. Glasses uncollected, tables messy, long queues, Walk out. For none beer geeks after a cheap pint, they are a safer bet than most establishments. In a big UK city I check out the Spoons before anything else.

        1. Our posts are clearly branded. If you don’t like the offer, steer clear. A moan about tired old tropes of beer blogging is surely one of the tired old tropes of commentating upon beer blogging, etc..

          1. Eye, but blogs are free and you get what you pay for. Commercial journalism would have to think of something interesting to say about the Spoons. Like why are they so popular? Is all down to price? Why do they have so many imitators? Both Greene King & John Barras run copycat establishments with a beer and burger for a fiverish type offer. These are more numerous than Spoons but get little by way of flak because they don’t tempt the beer geeks in with tokens & beer festivals. Lots of interesting questions to ask.

  8. I think the interesting question about Spoons is what they are. There are plenty of bars around which nobody would call a pub, just on the basis of the ambience. Spoons don’t have a name of their own (other than ‘Spoons’) but I think they’re at least as un-pub-like as the average bar – and ‘chain restaurant’ doesn’t capture it, for the reasons I’ve mentioned (show me a Harvester’s which boasts of the number of CAMRA members behind the bar).

    1. Absolutely. I think it’s played down these days, but all the George Orwell ‘perfect pub’ schtick now seems slightly ludicrous.

  9. Cookie — you said: “Commercial journalism would have to think of something interesting to say about the Spoons.”

    Have you read any papers lately? They’d get the work experience to do a blog about it, saying not that much, if they took any interest at all.

    So you don’t think there’s anything interesting at all in the pubbiness or otherwise of Spoons? And CAMRA’s endorsement of the chain which is otherwise at odds with their save the local, traditional pub rhetoric? If you don’t you don’t, fair enough.

    (Penny drops — are you Tim Martin?)

    1. It is just that if all you have to say about the Spoons, that they are McSpoons (and I agree they are) then it has been mentioned a fair few times before. It isn’t new. Are you saying they are popular because of or in spite of them being McSpoons? That’s an interesting question to ask and attempt to answer.

      There are many things on the highstreet I don’t get. I was walking along one last week and noticed half the people had primark bags. I’ve never got primark. Okay, it’s cheap but is that it? The squeeze had no answer. Later on in the week my german teacher mentioned she’s off back and we are getting a new teacher. She mentioned that she would miss primark. I asked her why. She gave an interesting answer that allowed me to look through the eyes of another, Cheap is only part of the appeal. I suspect the boss of M&S would pay a lot of consultants to get the answer I got.

      As for McDonalds, Wetherspoons, whatever. Understanding why others like what you don’t is so much more interesting than dismissing what you don’t like and questioning the taste of those that do. But sure they are McSpoons, you are right.But isn’t that the start, not the end?

      1. I’ll probably get some flak for this, but I’ll say it anyway: I think a big part of the appeal of Spoons is that the atmosphere is unapologetically working-class. That doesn’t mean everything’s cheap – being working-class doesn’t mean you’ve got no money or that you want charity – but it does go along with there being cheap options (cups of tea, burgers, pints of Ruddle’s), because being working-class does mean you know what it’s like to be hard up, and you don’t want your nose rubbed in it when you are. The ‘liveliness’ of the typical evening atmosphere is part of this (I’m using ‘lively’ to mean ‘not actually on the brink of kicking off, but not a million miles from it’).

        At the end of the day there’s something very institutional about them – a controlled environment for people to let their hair down, just a bit – like a sergeant’s mess or a package resort. For working-class people, generally, and mostly for grown-up people. As 18-30 to ‘vertical drinking’ dens, so Thomson’s to Spoons?

        1. “It is just that if all you have to say about the Spoons, that they are McSpoons (and I agree they are) then it has been mentioned a fair few times before. It isn’t new.”

          Fair point. That’s probably why we didn’t spend more than ten minutes writing it and stuck it out among the stream of ‘stuff that occurs to us’ that constitutes the blog, rather than working it up into a proposal for an eight part documentary.

      2. You sound like you’ve got lots of ideas on these type of subjects Cookie – have you ever thought of starting your own beer blog?

  10. I wanna know what the german lady said about Primarni now.

    RE Phil: class is definitely the elephant in the room when it comes to all the beer blog debates, whether its “community pubs” vs spoons vs trendy bars, whether it comes to straight sided glasses vs handled jugs vs poncy wine glasses, and definitely when it comes to pongy ale vs hipster beer vs cooking lager.

    Most people’s opinions on all these seemingly inconsequential things are either consciously or subconsciously derived from what class they see themselves as. Likes drinking craft beer out of a handled mug? Must be a middle class ponce etc.

    Anyway I thought it was a perfectly good topic for a blog post B&B. Just because something has been said before doesn’t mean its not worth repeating from a slightly different point of view.

  11. Class is such a hot potato. I’ve been trying to think how to put this all afternoon. Not sure I’ve quite cracked it but, hey-ho, here goes.

    It’s important to distinguish between parts of working class culture that are genuinely good and enjoyable — I’d say fish and chips, at their best, are really tasty — and those which are not so much a choice as what’s left when other options are ruled out because of limited income/opportunity/exclusivity.

    Until fairly recently, I wouldn’t go to certain places because I’d assume people would sneer at me for being ‘uncouth’. They places I did go weren’t necessarily cheaper but I felt more at home.

    Getting older and caring less means that I can now (just about) handle a restaurant that has airs and graces, though I might still occasionally agonise over whether I’m wearing acceptable shoes or using the right fork or something stupid like that. The cringe runs deep and I don’t like it.

    So, yes, Phil, you might be right — JDW and similar pubs do have a certain appeal based on the fact that, whichever town you’re in, they all work the same; and there aren’t too many opportunities for social embarrassment, or to feel ‘looked down on’. Unless you forget to take note of your table number, that is, when you’ll be laughed out of town.

  12. Cookie’s same old, same old jibe about the blog entry would have been a bit more authentic coming from someone who hadn’t spent a year or two blogging the same spiel about getting pissed on lout and servicing the bint.

    But I’m in his camp when it comes to ‘Spoons. More often than not they’re perfectly okay and sometimes superb.

    You’ve got to ask yourself if the ‘Spoons wasn’t there what mangy old shithole would be.

    1. I never said I was innocent of using tired old tropes. I repeated the same old joke until even I was pig sick of it. I am allowed to be a hypocrite. But look, some of the commentators have started to say something interesting about the Spoons. Maybe right, maybe wrong. Either way the comments have more going for it than the original post.

Comments are closed.