We’re not quite sure why restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin chose to review a branch of Wetherspoon in her new column for the Sunday Times but she did, and didn’t like it.
We haven’t been able to read the column because it’s behind a paywall so won’t comment on it directly except to say that from the generous quotes the Morning Advertiser has permitted itself here it does seem that she was offering a genuine reaction to the quality of the food. If you’re skint, one of those quotations suggests, the chippy is cheaper and better – a sound argument and surely one that (as intended) goes someway to mitigating accusations of pure snobbery.
But, still, this delicate rebuttal by the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush for the i newspaper chimed with us, bringing back memories of our teens and early twenties:
I’m not going to pretend that I adore the food at Wetherspoons, but it has, nonetheless, been responsible for some of the best meals of my life. When I was working in a shop and gradually tunnelling out from under my overdraft, a monthly treat for me and the rest of the staff was a trip outside of the store’s catchment area (where we could be certain of not bumping into any of the clientele) to have dinner at Spoons… It wasn’t good, but it was affordable, we could sit down without being hassled to move on and, crucially, you pay separately and upfront, with no anxiety about who was paying for what.
This got us thinking about how often Wetherspoon pubs are (to paraphrase a favourite line of the Pub Curmudgeon’s) distress destinations – somewhere you end up out of convenience, as a compromise or because, yes, you’re skint.
We often have a great time in Spoons but that’s usually because it’s so quick, easy and cheap (per Stephen Bush) it takes all the stress out of deciding where to go so you can concentrate on having fun with friends and family. You can walk in with a party of eight, including a teetotaller, a vegetarian, a conservative bitter drinker and a craft beer geek (actual case study) and be sure that everyone will have a reasonably good time, and that nobody will come away feeling ripped off.
But, at the same time, any one of those people, if it was entirely their choice and money was no object, would probably choose somewhere else.
Of course it’s not always a compromise. The lure of interesting festival beers makes Spoons the go-to place at certain times of year; some of the buildings are beautiful, important and/or atmospheric; and (controversial opinion klaxon) we’ve yet to have better chicken wings than theirs, and – believe us – not for want of trying.
More generally it’s fascinating how much coverage Spoons gets in the mainstream press, and how many clicks those articles seem to generate. It is very close to a universal British experience these days, after all, and heavy with cultural symbolism in the age of Brexit.
There’s a full chapter on Wetherspoon’s in our new book, 20th Century Pub, and as a result (disclosure) it’s apparently reviewed or at least mentioned in the upcoming edition of Wetherspoon News. We’ll be acquiring a copy or two of the magazine for posterity.