Nothing says Christmas like chewing through a roast potato the precise texture of a bunion, sitting beside a gently sweaty alcoholic above a carpet that looks like a skin condition, with Eastenders playing in the background.
And if you can't muster such a scene from the vaults of your own family discord then, fear not: Wetherspoons is here. That's right, Wetherspoons. The no-frills, no-music, no-need-to-wash pub chain that defines Great British drinking. The home of Thursday's Curry Club, Wednesday's Chicken Club, and the glorious tradition of a fry up and pint for less than £4.99.
And they do a Christmas Menu. I mean, of course they do.
As I walked home past the high pressure sodium glow of my local Wetherspoons (Baxter's Court in East London, for those of you keeping notes), I first noticed the poster: Have your Christmas at Wetherspoons? Try and fucking stop me, pal.
But could I, a mere corporeal woman, an alimentary canal with an iPhone, a salt-fingered daughter of Eve, really do the unthinkable? Could I eat the entire Wetherspoons Christmas menu in one sitting? Three starters, two mains, two puddings? To go, as PG Wodehouse would say, "from soup to nuts" at a mahoganish-varnish table beside a man in a high-vis vest and three chain-vaping secretaries from a local chartered accountant?
My friends, the gauntlet had been thrown down. And I, as the King's Champion, was ready to take it up and run.
For a bit of a treat, I decided to undertake this gravy-stained challenge at The Coronet—an enormous, vault-like Wetherspoons on the Holloway Road that was once a bingo hall and is now the home to some of North London's most colourful drunks. You can still taste the scent of panic.
Behind the bar, a woman with hair the colour and texture of a Cheese String was wearing a Bella Italia name badge. (Because sure, why not. It's all food, isn't it? They're all places.) She had just taken 23 minutes to make a cup of coffee for the tiny, all-muscle-and-nicotine woman standing beside me, who was shouting to anyone who'd listen that "you wouldn't get this" in her pub, while pulling at the neck of her turquoise jumper until it was resting somewhere around her armpit. I ordered a tiny bottle of Prosecco-for-one and asked about the Christmas Booking I made over the phone earlier.
That's right. You heard. I actually rang a Wetherspoons and booked a table. I didn't even know you could book a table at a Wetherspoons. They also made me order my entire meal, from starters to puddings, right there on the phone, ten hours before eating. It felt like calling an Addison Lee taxi to ask them to drive too fast through a puddle and soak you with brown street piss outside London Bridge station in seven hours time.
Well, the table was amazing. Planted just a few feet away from the fire exit behind which I could see they store the boxes of microwaveable Christmas puddings, it was decorated with purple polyester paper, a loose weave tablecloth covered in gold stars, and a gold satin trim running down the middle like a Travelodge bed. Someone had strung a single strand of blue fairy lights over the bannister beside me. People were actually turning to look. I felt like I had just arranged to lose my virginity in the foyer of a train station.
Sadly, despite my ten-hour phone warning (presidents have gone to war with less notice), it turned out that no food had actually been ordered and that I had to go up to the bar and ask for it. Not that I minded too much—after all, there was an Irish man the size of a dumpling over there who was refusing to pay because his beer had a 1.5 centimetre-head and he wasn't "going to pay for yer air, like some prick." Not to mention the two men in shiny black suits jostling shoulders like two teenagers desperate to brush hands against each others' genitals, talking loudly about "Being on one. Being " as they ordered two pints of John Smith's.
Talking of John Smith's, when I got back to my table—another miniature bottle of Prosecco in my hand—I noticed that the man beside me was scrolling through his iPhone with a thumb flick bigger than someone spinning the dial on a bank safe. Also drinking a pint of John Smith's, he was tucking into a plate of chicken curry. By this point I was so hungry (I'd skipped lunch to leave room for an entire Christmas menu) that the eau de Curry Club nearly made me burst into tears all over my gold tablecloth.
As I walked home past the high pressure sodium glow of my local Wetherspoons, I first noticed the poster: Have your Christmas at Wetherspoons? Try and fucking stop me, pal.
Luckily my waiter—a man so razzed up on adrenaline, love for his job, or bumps of cocaine off the laminated menus that he was practically break dancing between tables—finally brought me my starters. All three of them.
There was a pâté the colour of a prosthetic leg that tasted not unlike dog food. The tomato soup was quite literally a bowl of burnt passata served with half a white baguette. This triptych was finished with a smoked salmon salad that was delicious but also largely resembled a Boots Meal Deal with the bread taken out.
I couldn't quite believe it. I love Wetherspoons. Honestly, I've had some of my best meals sitting in the silent dining area of that chain pub. And I, like all right-thinking Brits, love a pub roast. But something was going seriously awry here. I slid up to the bar to order another bottle of Prosecco (by this point I was considering just getting a litre-sized bottle and saving myself the trip) as a tiny boy on a scooter flew across the carpet, landing in a crumpled heap at the feet of some Polish students.
Maybe things would get better with the mains, I thought. Things had to get better with the mains.
As I waited for my order, I asked the woman behind the bar what it was like working at Wetherspoons over Christmas. Would she be doing a shift on the actual day?
"I hope not," she said, her face barely moving, as she turned to kick an empty glass tray back into the dishwasher.
I tried again. "What sort of people do you get in over Christmas?"
She looked at me and smiled: "We get everyone, darling." And at that moment, a man wearing a leather cowboy hat and jewelled jeans walked past me carrying nothing but an enormous bag of Doritos.
To cover all the bases, I'd ordered both a traditional turkey dinner and the vegetarian option. While my starters had been fairly filling (possibly on account of using my half-baguettes as a spoon with which to eat the soup and salad), I was still ravenous.
The phrase "all the trimmings" didn't exactly leap into my head as I looked down at the plate of peas, potatoes, carrots, and a Yorkshire pudding the size and consistency of a contraceptive diaphragm.
Two Christmas dinners would be fine. Not even a thing.
And, to some extent, I was right. The phrase "all the trimmings" didn't exactly leap into my head as I looked down at the plate of peas, potatoes, carrots, and a Yorkshire pudding the size and consistency of a contraceptive diaphragm.
The vegetarian main came with a cheese and mushroom pie that was, without doubt, the best thing on the entire menu. Oh sure, it had probably been microwaved to the point of near-nuclear radiation, but it was cheesy and buttery and sometimes that's all that counts.
The turkey option came with, well, a few slices of turkey. No stuffing, no-pigs-in-blankets, no cranberry sauce. They had done a rather nifty trick by which each roast potato was a slightly different consistency and, as we know, it's always nice to have a lump of mashed potato to "dip" your roast potatoes into.
But hot, shiny Christmas food this was not.
By this point, I'd been sitting in Wetherspoons for about two hours. I'd watched Pointless, Eastenders, and the news—all silently blaring from behind the bar. I'd watched a man in the corner read an entire chapter of his book while drinking a cup of coffee. I'd seen a woman in an actual salwar kameez order off the Curry Club menu. I'd stared at the wine and terracotta carpet with apple-green swirls that would have given William Morris a despair boner. I'd seen a group of academics from the nearby London Metropolitan University somehow sit sideways on their chairs while discussing BBC Four. I'd wondered, without success, why there was a large string of illuminated pears across one window.
In short, I was drunk, my stomach was full, and yet I was about as satisfied as a 14-year-old girl getting inexpertly fingered in front of a Big Bang Theory repeat.
Still, at least there was pudding. I'd gone a little wild and ordered the Christmas pudding with custard and something called a "Christmas Bar." But, as my waiter brought it over, he either said "That's all we've got" or "Here's what you got."
I wasn't quite sure. But I did know that this was only one pudding. I will perhaps go to my grave not knowing what a Christmas Bar actually is. It's a sacrifice I'm willing to take.
Three hours and £26.21 (not including drinks) later, I was bored, irritable, had gravy smeared up my sleeve, was sick of the sound of other people's eating, needed a piss, wanted to undo my trousers, had spent too long looking at a television surrounded by tinsel, and felt a little queasy.
In other words, it had been an absolutely archetypal Christmas Dinner in every respect.
Oh sure, the role of my mother had been played by a tiny screaming landlady in an acrylic turquoise jumper, the part of "grandfather" had been taken up by an old man in grey slacks who didn't understand the concept of foam, and my siblings had been replaced by feral children on scooters. But, in its very essence, this was family Christmas.
And, I suppose, that's what Wetherspoons is for. It's a home from home. It's your family without the blood ties. It's your front room with bulk-bought air fresheners. The food may be disgusting, the carpet questionable, and the company dreadful. But, my friends, that is precisely what we deserve.