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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.