20th Century Pub Generalisations about beer culture pubs


Wetherspoon's engraved glass "Est 1979".

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.

The carpet at the Imperial, Exeter.

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 book20th 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.

9 replies on “Spoonsgate”

One of the things I like about Wetherspoons is that they provide somewhere to sit down, indoors, in the warm, for 40p (the price of a half of lime and soda).

There’s really very little journalistic coverage or reviews of popular mass-market catering of any kind, so there’s nothing to compare it with.

In many towns, Spoons offer about the only half-way decent pub food there is, or indeed about the only pub food full stop.

There is so much that is good about Wetherspoons, that it scares the living daylights out of so many disparate groups, including:
1. The rest of the pub trade
2. The rest of the restaurant trade
3. Anti-drinking, do-gooders
4. Up-tight Sunday Times journalists
etc. etc.

Sure, there will always be better beer, better food, and even better pubs elsewhere. But when it comes to an overwhelming commitment to Value For Money, ‘Spoons are untouchable.

The reviewer seems obsessed with calories, I imagine her reviews of top restaurants don’t mention that at all. An indulgent treat can be fattening, what’s not being recognised is for some spoons is that indulgence. Personally I’ve had spoons meals I’d happily have paid double for and spoons meals where frankly staff need better training in using a microwave. I do hear bar staff from elsewhere slagging spoons, mainly for the damage their low craft beer prices does to the sector, personally I’m seeing beers on their best prices down to supermarket prices. So cans I get to take out aren’t really any great bargain and I’d mainly think of spoons as an alternative to grabbing a sandwich and can to eat on the train.

I really liked that piece by Stephen Bush.

And I have to say I disagree with O’Loughlin about the food at Wetherspoon’s. While it’s not fantastic I’ve never had it anywhere near as bad as she claims. Hard not to suspect there is more than a little snobbery at work here.

I genuinely don’t get why she did a review of a Spoons – can’t imagine a restaurant reviewer for a national paper doing one of Pizza Express, Zizzi or one of the plethora of fast food chains etc etc. It seems to be a good way of getting a shed load of coverage for her new job.

Spoons is classic “you get what you pay for” territory – it’s fine but never my first choice. Last time I visited one was between sessions at Indy Man Beer Con to load up on stodge, it did the job!

Adrian Gill was a wonderful wordsmith who took delight in skewering the pretentiousness of the restaurant trade.
From describing Gordon Ramsay as a strutting martinet when he ejected Gill and his dining companion Joan Collins from his restaurant to taking delight at the exquisite food at an unfashionable eatery.
But taking the piss out of Joe Soap by simpering about the calorific content of what he was eating ? I don’t recall it,probably because it was too obvious a target.
One thing Gill never did is try too hard – which is exactly what Ms O’Loughlin is doing trying to follow such a tough act.

What has been missed here, and goes some way to explain why she reviewed it, is the shear scale of this partucular ‘spoons: it’s the biggest pub in Europe. It’s massive, and its sales budget is bigger than all the Ramsgate pubs put together. This is a town of pop 35k. Now with one pub taking £4m out of the local economy, selling beer and food from outside the area, and the locals are too blind to see the destruction it’s doing to their health, wealth and well being.

On the surface it all looks good: shiney restoration, ‘good value’ food and drink, and lovely views. But actually the cost of restoration is borne by the local economy, the food and drink shipped in from afar, further costing the local economy, and the views were ours, and free, anyway.

More fighting back than snobbery.

Surely it’s obvious that the reason Marina O’Loughlin reviewed the Ramsgate ‘Spoons was to draw attention to her recent switch from the Guardian to the Sunday Times. In which aim she appears to have succeeded admirably, as it has not only exercised Stephen Bush in the i but has prompted a discussion on Camra’s Discourse forum (which managed to suck me in, among others) and even distracted Boak and Bailey from their next book. Job done, I reckon.

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