For some reason, people love to sneer at Wetherspoons. "Hah! Morons go there to drink affordable, name-brand beer," they scoff. "It's full of plebs eating burgers that don't taste as good as the ones we got at Byron for double the price!"
It's the most maligned pub chain in the UK – the high street Heskey to Yates's Bobby Moore; a collection of rooms containing pint glasses and chairs that, inexplicably, is on the receiving end of far more shit than O'Neill's, Belushi's and Slug and Lettuce combined. It's a place people tend to associate with a kind of somnambulant sadness, the ambient mutterings of the lonely and the ill interrupted only by the announcement of a gourmet hot dog or the occasional student barfight.
But it's time for a rethink.
For the past decade, Great British Pub Culture as our parents knew it has been eroded at a worrying pace; according to Camra, around 31 pubs are closing every week. Clearly, it's tricky for your independent White Harts and Red Lions to convince the nation that a £3.50 pint is something worth preserving when they can pick up four cans for an extra 50p at their nearest Tesco Metro.
However, in the midst of all this, Wetherspoons continues to grow. The chain currently has 925 locations in the UK, a figure that's set to rise to 931 by Christmas. Not only are they propping up the presence of pubs on our high streets, but – based on their own merits – they're now a legitimate destination in their own right, not just a roof for you and your mates to huddle under before heading to a gig, or a rugby match, or a bowling alley, or anywhere they water down the beer in the hope it'll stop the customers from getting too rowdy.
I couldn't be happier about this. It was over a Wetherspoons lunch that my dad told our young family we were going on our first surprise holiday; over a dinner that my friend and I shared a pretend Christmas while our respective parents were going through rough patches in their marriages; and, post-divorce, when my dad came out for a £5 pint and burger with my sister and I that I realised he was pretty much my best friend in the world.
But away from all the personal sentimentality, there's something in there for everyone, and that's because the chain has spent the past 35 years perfecting a formula that's made them everything you could ever really ask for in a boozer. Fine, they may not be the absolute best option in any given postcode – and it's likely that formula which has some decrying a certain cookie-cutter feel to a number of their branches – but the chain still deserves far more credit than it's given, mostly thanks to three key factors.
First – and most important – is the price. Money makes the world go round, which is a little inconvenient for the 22 percent of us earning under living wage who still want to have some semblance of a social life. A social life that includes competitive drinking or moaning about your eight-pint hangover into a five-man WhatsApp group.
No matter where you are, seek out those golden letters and promotional chalkboards and you know you're getting the most for your money. This can be handy for all manner of things, but let's use a burgeoning relationship as a case in point: an actually pretty decent roast (so quite a good first date, imho) is about £7 a plate; Valentine's for two is £20; and you can hold a wedding reception for 100 people at the Knights Templar branch for £3,000, or £30 a head (an average wedding in the UK costs an unbelievable £18,000). So that's every stage of your relationship sorted on a budget you might actually be able to afford.
There's arguably nowhere this is needed more than in London, where a minimum wage job won't cover your rent and bills, let alone a Thursday evening drink.According to pintprice.com, a pint in the capital will set you back – on average – £3.68. That might be true of the satellite zones, but seems a little optimistic in the areas you're actually going to meet your friends: probably somewhere near work, probably in Zone 1 or 2. There, it's not out of the ordinary to pay around a fiver for a pint. But go to the Spoons next door and you'll get the same glass for under £4.
The second key ingredient is ambience. A JD Wetherspoon is a melting pot like no other; seemingly the only pubs where literally anyone and everyone can enjoy a pint, a Tottenham match with bonus subtitles and a slightly sub-par curry together on a Thursday night. Want a pub full of aspiring gentry? Head to Parsons Green or Oxshott. Somewhere you might meet an American? Covent Garden or Edinburgh. A tavern teeming with pewter tankards, bits of dead animal and men who own guns? Northumberland or Somerset. All of these people all at once? A Wetherspoons, basically anywhere in the UK.
Fun fact: Spoons was, in fact, established by a man called Tim Martin, not Mr Wetherspoon. Tim had a teacher called Mr Wetherspoon who told him he'd never amount to anything. Now he's a millionaire business fat-cat who owns close to a thousand pubs across the UK. It's the pub of the underdog; a big fuck you to Mr Wetherspoon. And in this pub of the underdog, there's no pretence. No one is too good, old, young, rich or poor to take a seat.
As a freelance writer, it's also the holy grail of working spaces – the only place with wi-fi that'll let you hang around all day, nursing cold coffee dregs. And very best of all, there's no music, only a sweet silence peppered with the light chatter of bar staff and the hacking cough of a tobacco-stained regular. No Avicii and no Sam Smith invading your ear canals at 4 in the afternoon.§
The third and final ingredient is class. I know they're a chain and they're all branded and blah, blah, blah, but that doesn't detract from the fact that a number of branches are housed inside some beautiful buildings. In London, we have Crosse Keys, a pub built inside a spectacular former bank lobby, complete with some fuck off massive marble pillars; as well as the aforementioned Knights Templar inside the former Union Bank, which boasts the poshest toilets.
Many others are repurposed cinemas, churches and pubs that would have otherwise been redeveloped. Yes, Spoons buys these historical buildings and rebrands them, but an effort is always made to retain the original style – and even if you're of the anti-fun school of thought, wouldn't you still rather that than all of these buildings being converted into yet more luxury flats?
For anyone big into real ale and craft beer – anyone really, properly passionate about yeast – the chain has also started to focus on both those things, too. I seriously doubt there's anywhere else within the M25 you could grab a guest ale from £2.70 a pint, and every year there's the JD Real Ale & Cider Festival, featuring 60 British and international ales and ciders in all their pubs.
As pub culture continues to falter, we should appreciate – not lament – the fact that we have a public house behemoth we can trust to stand the test of time. An unsavoury idea or not, JD Wetherspoon has the formula right; the fact they have more pubs listed in the Good Beer Guide than any other pub company in the UK is testament to this.
They're the places that'll be with us from adolescence to death: where we try to buy a Red Bull and vodka with a shitty fake ID; where we go for a birthday meal when we're 30 years old and still on £18,000 a year; where we get pissed on prosecco for our 50th; and where we congregate for our friends' wakes when we're 60, or 70, or 80.
Our high streets will change and evolve and decay, but I'd wager these distinctly average pubs are going to remain a constant, giving us a roof and some walls in which we'll continue to experience more of life's most seminal moments. And thanks to Spoons that's something I can actually afford to drink to.
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