When you’re between houses, staying in bed and breakfasts or cheap hotels, your idea of what constitutes a good restaurant changes. Gone is the desire for something different or better than you’d get at home. Eating out for at least two meals a day means you start to crave the kind of food you could cook yourself, you want something filling and healthy but, most of all, you need something cheap.
This is why, half way through the process of moving back to the UK, I’ve joinedManchester United’s teen prodigy Anthony Martial, the Sleaford Mods, the Beckhams (allegedly) and a sizeable chunk of the rest of the country, in making a Wetherspoons my unofficial canteen. Having largely been derided (with some notable exceptions) as the “Tesco of pubs”, developing an unfortunate reputation as the last resting place of elderly alcoholics and young binge drinkers, could it be that they’re actually Britain’s best-value restaurant chain?
In many provincial British towns, like my new home of Coventry, the high street’s food scene, if you don’t want a sandwich, can be divided into pub food, fast food, spicy food or greasy spoon. Pub food has got better in the last 20 years but, outside the more expensive gastropubs, there’s a limited menu of poorly used “classics” such as steak-and-ale pie.
Fast food and greasy spoons have their place, but perhaps best not eaten every day. Meanwhile, there’s nothing like spending a lot of time with Spanish people, courtesy of my Alicante-born wife, to make you realise how much Britain’s tolerance for “spicy” food has risen in the last 10 years. For those who regard anything “hot” as an exercise in culinary masochism the modern menu, even in apparently innocuous little cafes, is a minefield of “sweet chilli sauce” and other hidden tongue-scorchers.
At Wetherspoons, the half roast chicken comes with something labelled “peri-peri”, (which tastes like an evil twin of tomato ketchup) but it’s served in a little pot so you can safely leave it to one side. More importantly, two half roast chickens, one with salad, one with satisfyingly fat and crunchy chips, a pint of Big Cat beer from local brewery Byatt’s and a pint of Carling comes to £13.90 (although accepting the bartender’s offer of “seasoning”, which I thought just meant salt and vinegar, but was actually some other unidentified spices, added a cheeky, Ryanair-style 20p supplement to the bill).
Despite boss Tim Martin’s moans about the impending cost of the new “living wage”, and the higher taxes they pay on alcohol, compared with supermarkets, the chain is still growing. They’re about to go full circle and open a pub where it all began, 36 years ago, a mile from Martin’s first pub in Muswell Hill London.
Wetherspoons are proof that it is possible to sell decent food and beer at a reasonable price. But isn’t their growing ubiquity a rebuke to the idea that Britain’s dining scene has been revolutionised? While we may have more Michelin stars at top end restaurants, down here in the bargain basement, where most of us actually eat, there are fewer options. Until somebody can match Wetherspoons for quality and value for money, the much-hyped improvement in British cooking will still be a work in progress.