It’s arguably Britain’s favourite pub chain. But a newly-opened branch of Wetherspoon’s has prompted a brutal review by a Sunday Times restaurant critic that has opened up a fierce debate about food snobbery.
Restaurant writer Marina O’Loughlin admitted she used the pub behemoth as a “shorthand for all that’s bad about ‘British’ food and chain catering” despite never having eaten at one.
So, in tandem with a self-confessed ’Spoons fan, she visited its new outpost in Ramsgate, Kent, to test her prejudice. The Royal Victorian Pavilion has been turned into what is thought to be the biggest pub in the UK, and O’Loughlin describes it as a “basic nirvana”.
“All the vomitous carpets, hastily erected wood panelling, fruit machines and reproduction art a cheap beer devotee could desire,” O’Loughlin writes of her first impression.
Since opening its first pub in Muswell Hill, north London, 38 years ago, JD Wetherspoon, run by Tim Martin, has become as well-known for its cheap eats as its eclectic beer selection. Driven by its Thursday night Curry Club, ’Spoons is now the biggest curry seller in the UK. With few alternative restaurant options on many high-streets, the Guardian has suggested it is “Britain’s canteen”.
But O’Loughlin did not come to praise. While the Purple Rain cocktails tasted of “Calpol and diabetic coma”, the wait was forecast to be 40 minutes and the clientele likely to be dominated by “families and sad old men”, it was the food that triggered the most despair.
The calorific menu was “institutionalised lunacy” when “Topped chips” tipped the scales at 1,422 calories. “It’s a Project Fear of a menu,” she thinks.
Ordering pepperoni pizza, the critic described how it “skites off its plate” after being “dumped on the table”. “I suppose it’s all the respect this oily number deserves,” she notes.
The breadcrumbed scampi was described as “stiff orange coffins emitting an ooze of vaguely fishy goo”. But the worst dish was the “side” (author’s quotation marks of ribs: “who orders a side of ribs?”): “It’s the sort of thing you might scoop out of the bottom of Hannibal Lecter’s recycling bin.”
The experience wan’t all bad. “The terrace that wraps around this ravishing piece of seaside architecture is quite the place to sit with a pint, looking out to sea,” she continues, though “only if you smuggle out a picnic”.
In conclusion, O’Loughlin was “no convert” and unapologetic, arguing that food snobbery means “the chains and moneymen with their spreadsheets and battery chickens won’t always win”.
“Yes, it’s cheap, but, to quote my mama, I wouldn’t give you tuppence for it,” she writes. “This is cheap not because it’s good value, but because it’s nasty. At least I can now slag it off from a position of authority.”
Comments on the Times’ website suggested not everyone agreed.
But the sense O’Loughlin had gone a sneer too far was evident once the writer released the review on social media.