I have great respect for Wetherspoons’ success as a pub operator, but somehow I struggle to warm to their pubs. Thinking about this, I reached the conclusion that one of the key reasons is that they largely eschew bench-type seating in favour of individual tables and chairs.
Traditionally, pubs have always tended to have benches fixed around the walls. This design was used because it works. It's flexible, as you can spread out coats and papers, or huddle close together, it's sociable, as everyone faces in towards the centre of the room, it's adaptable to different-sized groups of people, and it gives a room a distinctive quality of “pubbiness”. It's no coincidence that all of what are regarded as the finest pub rooms have fixed wall seating, whereas one of the most depressing rooms I have ever seen in a pub had plain white walls and nothing but about eight round tables each surrounded by four stools.
So why is it that modern pub designers so often go for having individual loose chairs grouped around tables instead? These may give a place the atmosphere of a gentlemen's club, or a Continental bistro, (or, at worst, a works canteen) but they certainly aren't right for pubs. They mean that people tend to cluster around tables in inward-facing groups rather than talking to each other, and make the place less sociable. They make the person who's just popped in on their own for a pint and a quick read of the paper feel ill at ease, and they're awkward too for groups of more than four.
The only conclusion is that they’re trying to make pubs look and feel less like pubs and more like restaurants.