What's the deal with Spoons?: an exploration of British pub culture


During my first classes last semester, one of my British professors asked me and my classmates what our favorite pubs were in Exeter. When it came my turn, I shrugged, embarrassed to be the only one who apparently hadn’t been to a decent pub three weeks into term.

“You have to have visited one pub,” he prompted. My cheeks turned red: I lied and said the Old Firehouse. He made a gesture as if to say, “Now, was that so hard?”

Of course I had been to a pub; however, I was embarrassed to say I had only been to the Imperial, which I gathered was unfashionable because it was a Wetherspoon’s franchise. But had I gotten the wrong end of the stick? There are two matters to address here. One is the importance of the pub to the British way of life. The other is to understand how Wetherspoon’s disrupted a legacy of pub community and made apparent the current anxiety about whether the pub is going the way of sprawling manor estates.

With nearly 1,000 franchises across the British Isles, Wetherspoons (‘Spoons for short) is a chain of pubs notable for their cheap food and beer, as well as for their constant, unbending menu that is shared in every pub. Through one lens, ‘Spoons is a safe harbor that offers refuge from the pretensions of gastropubs and other fashionable indignities. Seen in another way, ‘Spoons is the Walmart of pubs, tearing down long standing communities with the lure of accessible yet bland fare. As is usually the case, neither case is completely true, although neither are they false. Is Wetherspoons food nasty? In my opinion, yes. But in a hectic cultural moment, the chain provides a warm, friendly atmosphere in which patrons can spend a slow evening chatting with friends over beers of questionable freshness. 

In its own way, Wetherspoons' complicated status among the British people represents the anxiety surrounding the concept of modern Britishness itself. What does it mean for the national culture if the quintessential British experience of pubbing has been commercialized into a chain experience (by a New Zealander no less)? Furthermore, what does it entail if that chain is one of the only reliable spaces in which a simple pub grub experience can be obtained? This paradox tests those who prefer independent pubs, but who also acknowledge that the era of local pubs in which the drinking is front and center, with no airs of pretentiousness (or ironic anti-pretentiousness, which it could be argued is even worse) is perhaps nearing its end.  

Spoons wine glass

  The fact is that British pub culture is changing because Britain itself is changing; however, it is not necessarily a change for the better or the worse. Wetherspoons thrives because its low cost drink selection reflects the reality that alcohol is available much more widely than it was thirty years ago. Now that people can pop in to Tesco to pick up a four pack of cider for £4, they don’t have to go to a pub for a buzz. Spoons combines cheap beer with inexpensive meals in the form of “clubs,” or rotating daily specials. You can suggest a night out with your mates without presuming they have enough spare change for a gastropub meal. It’s not gourmet, but it’s comfortable.

Wetherspoons also takes great care to ensure that even if the menu is the same in each franchise, the atmosphere is different. The chain specializes in buying out unique locations and outfitting them in a comfortable manner that ranges in chic-ness. Famously, Spoons also orders a custom carpet for each of its locations: a single order can cost dozens of thousands of pounds.

Whether Spoons achieves an atmosphere of individuality is up for debate, but there’s no doubting that there’s something about a Spoons that brings the passions of Britons to the fore. When the chain announced that they would no longer be serving Sunday roasts, there were both lamenters and those who proclaimed good riddance to bad rubbish. While many saw the announcement as a huge blow to a quintessential British tradition, one commenter on the Daily Mail article wrote, "Time for Sunday Roast to be banned in every pub chain across the country. Dry, disgusting meat, soggy veg, fluorescent gravy. Yum." Clearly, there's a place for introducing new traditions. 

Love it or hate it, Spoons is here to stay, and it’s clearly not one of the four horsemen of the British cultural apocalypse. It fills a very needed niche of affordable socializing. It’s up to the public to support the establishments they believe should exist, and it’s healthy to recognize that even if you don’t love Spoons, traditions must adapt to the cultural climate to survive.


Wikipedia entry on Wetherspoon’s

Guardian Article: Has Wetherspoon’s Become Britain's Canteen?

Daily Mail Article: Wetherspoon’s Announces the End of Their Sunday Roasts

BBC: One Woman's 21-Year Quest To Visit Every Wetherspoon’s

Text and photos copyright by Andrea Lindquist, 2016