"You can get better food from a beloved independent, but that’s not the point"
In a year of unlikely political totems, Wetherspoons as an anchor for discussions on class, gentrification, and fiscal policy is right up there alongside Neville Southall’s Twitter feed becoming a beacon of enlightenment on gender politics and sexual identity.
Tens of thousands of words have been thinkpieced together hoping to explain Millennials' - that demographic that spawned the authenticity-obsessed, artisanally-retentive hipsters - love affair with a chain pub. It’s hardly rocket science: we’re all fucking skint, mate.
Struggling to mount the very bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs while the people at the top have greased it up for a laugh, we’ve got all the job security of a Leicester City manager, half our income goes on renting a shoebox that some property tycoon has fitted with an Ikea Kallax in a cynical attempt to pass it off as a “contemporary city dwelling”, and the future is looking increasingly like society collapsing amid endless, out-of-key shrieking.
On the plus side though, almost every city centre comes complete with one or two pubs with genuine character where you can have a couple of drinks and escape it all. They don’t even insist on piping music into them, so we can give our ears a rest from all that shrieking.
The pubs seem to have a generally positive social impact, creating jobs, restoring historic buildings and reducing social isolation
It’s not just millennials’ escapism that Spoons caters to, though. The pubs seem to have a generally positive social impact: they create jobs, restore historic buildings for public use, and their physical and financial accessibility helps reduce feelings of social isolation among marginalised groups.
Some communities have observed whole leisure economies being created around the opening of new Spoons, such as in Morley following the opening of The Picture House. Rather than viewing them as competition to plucky independents, see them as a feeder league for drinkers, giving people an affordable way to broaden their horizons in an unintimidating environment. Would I pay £7.50 for a half of La Trappe Quad at Head of Steam if I hadn’t gambled £3.29 on a Pauwel Kwak in Spoons several years ago? Unlikely.
So I was frustrated to hear that Wetherspoons’ ongoing efforts to redevelop the derelict Elinor Lupton centre on Headingley Road had hit another roadblock a couple of weeks ago. (tl;dr - Spoons bought the building, they were granted a license, a group of campaigners appealed it, the license was revoked, Wetherspoons appealed the decision, but it was upheld. All the while the building continues to rot).
The frustration manifested itself in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek column which provoked the kind of measured and balanced responses you might expect from both sides. One that I hadn't anticipated though came from a colleague, Antonia:
I won’t lie, it stung. I hadn’t felt this kind of betrayal since erm, Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin decided to use the pubs as a platform for distributing pro-Brexit propaganda. Let's er, not get into that now.
It’s a nuanced issue, so rather than disengaging our brains, clenching our fists, and hammering it out in the comments section, I insisted on taking her for lunch so we could have a proper, adult discussion about it in a totally neutral setting...
Technically Hedley Verity is a Lloyds No. 1 bar - Wetherspoons’ near-identical twin, the only difference being they play music throughout the day and stay open later at night. Antonia chose it - she used to go there with friends from a former job in a designer boutique in the VQ, or with her Mum and her friends who work as civil servants nearby. Hardly the Hetty Douglas-approved stereotype of a Wetherspoons Drinker.
Even though not a bonafide Spoons-Spoons, there’s still the sympathetic restoration of the building's original features - the atrium balcony giving a full view of the impressive roof structure - but the decor is what your Mum might describe as “funky”, and the portraits and information about Hedley Verity himself (as well as Barbara Hepworth, Alan Bennet and so on) feel incongruous on walls daubed a shade of Vimto-purple, next to zebra-print frosted glass. It’s no Winter Gardens or Velvet Coaster, that’s for sure.
I've (just about) got a professional reputation to uphold, so I won't act as if what we ate was a gastronomic revelation. A lot of it was prepared in a central kitchen and then reheated to order, as the anti-spoons lot will harp on about as if they’ve blown the door off some major conspiracy. Are you sat down? Good: This is common practice among the majority of restaurants. Almost anywhere with more than 20 covers charging £12 or less for a dish won’t be lovingly stretching your pasta or crimping your pie crust or cutting the spuds for your chips. You’d be surprised which restaurants microwave or pre-buy what. Some independents do it as well. You'd be surprised who you bump into in Costco.
They don't have a choice though. We’ve put such a low value on the food we eat and the people that prepare and serve it that restaurants can’t survive without cutting corners. Wetherspoons is a symptom of this though, not the cause.
Anyway, the food. The majority of what we ate was fine. You can get gyoza there now, which is very 2017. The deep-fried shell looked promising, with that kind of blistered froth on the outside that McDonalds apple pies get, but the inside was a stodge of cabbagey mass, and relied heavily on ginger-soy syrup for flavour.
Falafel are a uniform texture throughout - as if they’d been fake-tanned rather than fried. I’ve had much better, I’ve had much worse. They come on a dredge of decent hummus, confetti’d with tomato and onion and parsley. Southern-fried chicken strips are fried, which is a relief. And even better, they appear to come from the same place where McDonalds get their chicken selects.
Thanks to the menu being a total killjoy and listing the calories of everything, I’m persuaded away from the sheer hedonism of a burger with pulled beef, blue cheese sauce, chips, and six onion rings. A lamb moussaka is soggy but satiating 700ish calories, preventing me consuming about 1800 more than necessary. If all restaurants made us confront the reality and implications of our choices, I might even stand a chance of living past forty.
It goes without saying that nothing on the menu is the best version of that thing. You can get a better version of everything from a beloved independent, but that’s not the point - to some people, or at some times, that isn't the priority. The closer we get to that shrieking void, the more leisure becomes a luxury, and Wetherspoons - that unlikeliest of political totems, civic conservationist, gateway to The Finer Things™️, and British institution - makes it available to more of us.
The Hedley Verity factfile
3 Small PLates £10
- Veg gyoza
- Southern fried chicken strips
- Hummous & falafel
5 Bean Chilli £5.59
Main & Drink £7.70
- Lamb Moussaka
- 250ml Jacob's Creek merlot
Pauwel Kwak 350ml £3.79
All reviews are paid for by Confidentials.com and conducted independently and unannounced.
Southern-fried chicken strips 7, Gyoza 4, Falafel & Hummous 6, Moussaka 6, Five-bean chilli 6
Big-chain efficiency and a genuine concern for our enjoyment
Beautiful building if a little gaudy, good buzz and mix of punters