Thursday, 10 April 2014

Spoons not even on the bench

Someone said to me on Twitter: “I would have thought Spoons were right up your street – no music, cheap beer and grumpy old blokes.” I certainly recognise and appreciate those qualities in Sam Smith’s pubs, but somehow they just don’t seem to gel for me in Spoons. An obvious difference is the frequent presence of screaming kids in Spoons, which are rarely encountered in Sam’s, but, thinking about it, the key reason is that Spoons pretty much entirely avoid bench seating.

Regular readers will know that this is a long-standing hobby-horse of mine which I have written about previously here and here. Bench type seating, whether fixed or free-standing settles, has been long associated with pubs and is a characteristic feature of traditional pub interiors. It is highly flexible in accommodating groups of different sizes and, when quieter, allowing customers to spread out coats and bags. It also promotes sociability by getting drinkers to face the centre of the room and interact with each other rather than looking inward at their own little groups. You are much more likely to talk to people you don’t know where there are benches. In short, it just makes an interior seem more “pubby”. Plus it maximises total seating capacity.

I’m sure it’s a deliberate policy on the part of Spoons to furnish their pubs with free-standing chairs and tables as it is their intention to make them look less like old-fashioned pubs. Much the same is true of dining pub chains such as Brunning & Price and Vintage Inns. But a much greater use of bench seating would give them some of that atmosphere the lack of which is often considered one of Spoons’ greatest failings. Take, for example, the Waterhouse in central Manchester, which occupies a row of early 19th century terraced houses. With fixed seating, it would be a marvellous rabbit warren of cosy, characterful snugs. Without it, it’s just random loose furniture in a series of small rooms. At their worst, the bigger, open-plan Spoons with rows of tables in the centre of the room look more like works canteens.

A further issue with Spoons is that very often they seem to have eight different beers on but nothing I actually want to drink. The basic concept of a balanced beer range seems to completely elude their managers. It might be an idea if in each region they had as a permanent beer a classic “ordinary bitter” characteristic of that area such as, say, Thwaites Original in the North-West. This could replace the forgettable Ruddles and ensure there would always be something reasonable to fall back on even if everything else was either 6.5%, flavoured with coriander or as black as the Ace of Spades. It could also wean some of the regulars off John Smith’s Extra Smooth.

15 comments:

  1. Sedge Lynn, Chorlton. Lots of chairs, true, but a fair amount of bench seating (which I generally seek out). Plus a permanent session-strength 'house' beer from Brightside, and near-permanent guest status for Moorhouse's Blond Witch. As friendly as you like - last night I'd been at the bar two minutes when I was approached by someone who wanted to tell me his mate thought I looked like an IRA suspect (no idea what that was about, but I'm quite glad I'm not Irish). Currently serving all the black IPAs, single-hop pale ales and fruit-flavoured weirdies you can drink. What's not to like? (Apart from the fruit-flavoured weirdies.)

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  2. My local Spoons - http://www.jdwetherspoon.co.uk/home/pubs/the-jubilee-oak - has a horseshoe-shaped bench maybe 5 metres long. It's known as God's Waiting Room.

    I agree about the beers, though. Beer Fest on and there's one good bitter, one reasonable IPA - and eight "novelty" beers either sweet, fruity or stupidly strong, and sometimes all three.

    Peter

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  3. I get what you mean about spoons seating, it goes against the grain of that sociable feature of pubs. In a spoons you sit and talk with those you came in with. In an evening in a pub with bench seating you often engage in short conversations with others in the room. If you become a regular then you also get to know those people. It's horses for courses, depends on what you want on any given day.

    One think I cannot agree with are notions that all pubs should be the same. Like Tandy’s view of noisy pubs. It's not a problem that things exist that I don't much care for. It's for someone else. Spoons cater for people that don't want to engage with others and that's fine. Sometimes that's how I feel. It says something about our society that the spoons model is growing and appealing to punters that otherwise wouldn't step foot in a pub. You know, the people you would prefer didn't.

    I like the fact that Spoons create downward pressure on prices and upwards pressure on standards in many areas they set up shop.

    As for not finding anything to drink in them, they have arguably one of the widest ranges of grog available. If you drink only cask ale and don't like any of the guests then you have had a wasted trip. If you like and enjoy other drinks you will find decent lagers & wines at reasonable prices. The new craft beer range contains some nice drink flogged at a fraction of the price you see elsewhere.

    I think Spoons get more attention than they deserve. They do not dominate the landscape. There are worse pub companies out there, but they get ignored because they don’t try to get CAMRA members in with tokens. It’s really quite simple. If you don’t like ‘em don’t use ‘em. Let those that like them use them. You are not a snob, but some people are, but there is no reason to be snobby about some people enjoying a bargain that you don’t want. Smile and leave them to it.

    You could always sit in your adult only quiet bench seated pub with a fine pint of £3.50 cask ale and appreciate that there is somewhere for the local youth, single mothers with prams, old ladies wanting a tea room, pensioners, drunks & dead legs to go that means they do not disturb your quiet cask conditioned contemplative bliss.

    Oh and can I have your spoons tokens? Clarkeys as well if he’s chuckin’ ‘em.

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  4. What annoys me is that people drink in spoons when they should be drinking in the old-fashioned pubs that I like, just because "the beers cheaper" as if that was any kind of an excuse. and then the good pubs go bust because no-one is in them.

    Why can't people do as they're bloody well told.

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  5. Spoons aren't operators of pubs - they're licensed retailers - a licensed equivalent of McDonalds where hospitality and socialising are emphatically not offered. Their business model is designed round an constantly-renewing footfall of spenders to take up their wide range of drinks and food offerings. Spend, eat, drink, leave... next. The furnishings are designed to put people off lingering.

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  6. @Electric who said pubs should be the only places you can get a drink? Any more than a posh french restaurant should be the only place you can get a meal? McDonalds have their place, as do Spoons, as do the types of pubs Mudge likes, and the scatter cushioned riddled ones I like.

    Mudge just likes to moan because the smart traditional pubs he likes charge £3 and Spoons charge £2 and he wants to pay £2

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  7. @Cookie - I certainly don't want all pubs to be the same, and celebrate diversity in pubs. It's the "move with the times" merchants who want to homogenise them. But I'm quite entitled to say which I like, and which I don't like. Your local Robbies' gaff is quite a nice boozer, btw.

    @ElectricPics - quite so. It's a deliberate policy to minimise dwell time and prevent people feeling at home.

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  8. @cookie - Where did I say that pubs should be the only places you can get a drink? If anything I was emphasising that Spoons are not pubs but you can still get a wide range of drinks at one.

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  9. Professor Pie-Tin12 April 2014 at 20:24

    @ Phil
    " ... last night I'd been at the bar two minutes when I was approached by someone who wanted to tell me his mate thought I looked like an IRA suspect. "
    That's definitely not an opening conversation gambit in this particular part of Ireland !

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  10. Sorry to buck the trend, but our local Spoons in Tonbridge - The Humphrey Bean does have extensive bench seating right down one side of the elongated pub. Before conversion, the building was formerly the town's Crown Post Office and sorting office, and the Wetherspoon's architects have done their best to create some character out of what was, in effect, a glorified shed.

    This type of seating works well, and does help encourage a more pub-like atmosphere to the place.

    Some observations from a few of the other comments: does anyone still drink John Smith's Extra Smooth? and what does an IRA suspect look like?

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  11. Some of the older Wetherspoons did have a fair bit of bench seating, but newer conversions like the Kingfisher in Poynton tend to have none at all. There are just two "corners" with four tables between them in the Gateway in Didsbury.

    John Smith's Extra Smooth remains pretty popular amongst older male drinkers, and is usually the staple ale in the keg-only estate boozer. It's common to hear someone come into a pub and specifically order "a pint of smooth".

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  12. Mudgie, your comment about customers ordering "a pint of smooth", reminds me of a time, some years ago, in a pub in Surrey, the name of which escapes me now. Anyway I was standing at the bar, waiting to be served, when these two old duffers, dressed in golfing attire, in front of me asked for "two halves of keg". I hadn't seen or heard anyone specifically ask for "keg" since the early 1970's!

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  13. I was in a pub yesterday (in Hartlepool FWIW) that had a guest cask lager on. I heard someone order a lager; the landlady said, "Do you want the flat or the fizzy?" They went for the fizzy.

    To be fair (and to get even further off-topic), they do seem to like their cask beer a bit on the flat side up there - in a couple of places I saw pints served with monster Mr Whippy heads, which must have kicked a lot of the gas out of the beer itself.

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  14. Ah, the Teesside head, also reproduced on Tyneside and Wearside back in the days when steelworks, shipyards and so on spilled out so many workers at lunchtime and shift changes that the local pubs had to half-pour hundreds of pints. To keep them fresh the barmaids put a huge tight head on each one, and the beers were brewed to take the punishment.

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  15. And that's the other weird thing I saw in Hartlepool - a barmaid carefully half-pulling three or four pints, then stashing them in the fridge. (This wasn't the "inch short of the top and leave to settle" pour we're all familiar with these days, it was literally half a pint in a pint glass - with a massive head.) I couldn't believe what I was seeing - I thought either I'd gone mad or she had.

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