The J D Wetherspoon chain is to pubs what Lidl is to supermarkets. Once decried, the opening of a Spoons was seen as part of the erosion of the traditional English town pub; driving down standards and cheapening neighbourhoods. These days, the sneerers have gone very quiet. Like Lidl and stablemate Aldi, the middle classes have learnt to love the rock-bottom prices and entirely predictable offerings.
The opening of the Man in the Moon pub is a case in point. Newport’s second Wetherspoon’s opened in spring 2014 in what had been for years a decaying former church, to almost universal acclaim. At one point demolition seemed a likely outcome for the old church. But no – along came J D Wetherspoon and performed a spectacularly sensitive conversion on the building, making it one of the most characterful and well-appointed venues in the town. And it was here that Matt and Cat were invited to attend a works Christmas dinner – for once, the choice of dining venue was not in their hands. Paying their deposits and choosing from the menu weeks in advance, they duly joined merry colleagues from the corporate salt mine. Clad in Christmas jumpers and novelty hats they tottered along to see what Wetherspoon’s had to offer by way of a festive meal.
Main course plus drink: 2 x £7.99
Salted caramel cheesecake: £1.99
Christmas pudding: £2.25
The office outing can be a tricky affair, because it needs to suit every purse and every palate. In this respect Wetherspoons is ideally placed – it’s not at all expensive, and the food is the kind of lowest common denominator that few can object to. What’s more, it’s usually possible to seat a group of twenty diners together and serve them dinner without too much fuss. Or you’d hope so. You really would. Because if it turns out the Wetherspoon’s can’t in fact produce adequate food and drink; then it would risk the question why on earth does it offer to host Christmas parties?
After a bit of limbering-up at the bar downstairs, Matt and Cat’s group were directed to their table on the mezzanine. The space was, frankly, magnificent. It was akin to dining in a mediaeval banqueting hall, with high, beamed ceiling, modern stained glass and original features, and even a view outside so those in the warm could wave smugly at their smoker colleagues huddling in the garden – probably wishing they hadn’t worn that skimpy party outfit. Energetic young waiting staff bustled about and gathered drinks orders from everybody, as the diners began the usual rituals of trying to remember what they’d ordered.
The preamble was probably the high point of the evening. Drinks orders safely dispatched, the diners enjoyed the usual workplace raillery with the novelty of no work to interrupt it. Eventually their glasses ran dry and they noticed that the promised drinks (included in the price of the meal) hadn’t arrived. Nor had any food, and there weren’t even any crackers to pull. Now the jolly banter began to harden – gaining undertones of petulance.
Some of the team disappeared to the bar to fill the time and their empty stomachs. Eventually the starters arrived and, to be fair, were not bad. Matt and Cat, for some reason, hadn’t ordered anything but in a big enough group, that isn’t a problem. Somebody-or-other hadn’t turned up, or changed their minds, or was intolerant of something; and lo, there was a British broccoli and Shropshire blue cheese soup going begging. And it’s a good job that M&C were able to hoover up the spare soup because that’s all they had to eat for a very long time.
Now, one could reasonably anticipate that Wetherspoons is going to be a busy place on a Friday night at the best of times; on the penultimate Friday before Christmas it could be expected to be akin to bedlam. Therefore, it’s a shame that the management hadn’t foreseen this – particularly as most of the dining parties (of which there were several) would have booked weeks in advance. And pre-ordered their food from Wetherspoons restricted Christmas menu, which is reassuringly identical whether you are in Newport Isle of Wight or Newport Wales so there’s no fiddly local distinctiveness or risk of regional supply chains breaking here.
So let’s cut to the chase. The service was slow to the point of non-existent. After an interminable wait for starters there followed an even longer one for mains. The few staff there were were unfailingly polite but clearly overwhelmed by the task in front of them. The diners were having a great time but their views on Wetherspoon’s service were becoming more forthright as the booze flowed freely. And by the time the main courses eventually showed up the party mood had veered from jolly banter to outright moaning and (from M&C) passive-aggressive tweeting. And the food? Pretty terrible. Cat’s miserable-looking salmon fillet was accompanied by equally underwhelming carrots. Thankfully it came with a little pot of Hollandaise sauce to rehydrate the worst of it. Matt had a turkey roast that could have been reconstituted from NASA rations.
Matt and Cat then waited for another age to discover that dessert was not much better. The salted caramel cheesecake was the best of the lot; it had a nice flavour and soft crumbly texture. Matt had “the most pitiful Christmas pudding he had ever eaten”. Oh dear.
It may have been the unacceptably long wait which had made them think so poorly of the food. In fact, M&C realised that they could’ve flown to Turkey in the time it took them to be served this turkey dinner (around four hours, flight fact fans). If Matt and Cat had banged on the door of Hursts and demanded that they and a dozen acquaintances be fed at short notice then you’d expect the hardware store to struggle. But give a national pub chain six weeks notice with pre-ordered food, and you’d hope they’d do a bit better. Wetherspoons is a venue that promotes itself as location for big parties and as such, you’d imagine it would be equipped to deal with them. If not, they may as well just lock up the kitchen and redeploy what one assumes was the solitary member of staff to work behind the bar to help deal with the demand at front of house.
The company was great, and the party was a big success – but Wetherspoon’s had nothing to do with that. The sumptuous venue was an ironic contrast to the dismally-slow service and lackadaisical food. Wetherspoon’s is cheap. At £10 for two courses including a drink, it’s half the price of many competitors. Nonetheless, at that price it isn’t even close to worth it.
A shorter version of this review appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on the 19th of December 2014.
Matt and Cat revisited Man in the Moon on 11 December 2015 and had a much improved experience.