Giant UK pub chain JD Wetherspoons has come to Oban. Despite outcries from local pub and trade associations, The Corryvreckan opened on a prime site at the pier in February. Taking over a former clothing store, the pub has transformed an otherwise ho hum location into a stylish landmark. Since it opened, every time I pass by it is crowded to overflowing.
I have always been an advocate for buying local- and chains, especially restaurant chains, are anathema to me. Oban is very nearly devoid of chain pubs or eateries, but, being a resort town, there is one downside to this for the locals, and that is price. The cost of a lunch in most any place can run what a nice supper would cost in Glasgow. A friend recently told me he had a business lunch with three courses and one pint at a local landmark restaurant and the bill came to nearly 50 pounds! The cost of supper at one of the several lovely pubs, well, it is almost cost prohibitive for us middle class. For Rab and I to eat supper out, even at our local, it is upwards of the cost of four meals in Edinburgh. The quality is broadly excellent- local produce such as seafood, beef and spirits, nicely prepared and the service is nearly always above par. But going out for a pint or two and a meal can only be a rare treat in Oban. I know that is the price we pay for living in a holiday destination and I wouldn’t trade it for life in the Big Smoke, but it is a sad fact.
Despite my bias against chains, my curiosity got the better of me. The talk about town was how you could get a meal and a pint for half of what you would pay at a local. Sure, it’s just chain pub food, they said, but you can’t beat the price with a stick. And besides, Oban is so quiet in the winter I was up for a new experience. Rab resisted- “It’s just mass produced food with no atmosphere,” he insisted. I understood, but I had to see for myself. So after working up an appetite at the gym one night, we stopped in.
The place is the size of a ballroom, with vaulted ceilings and big glass doors and windows to take advantage of the view over the bay. Everything is faced with wood planks to look like a boat and whisky barrels are used for decoration. Quotes inspired by sailing jargon don the walls. It is kitschy but not as offensive as, for example, U.S. based Applebee’s chain pubs, which are decorated in early American Crap From Your Attic. As usual, it was packed with couples, tourists, after work parties and families, and the open floor plan made it terribly loud, to the point we almost had to shout to talk to each other over the table.
The procedure is to order at the bar and your order is brought out to you. The “southern style” chicken strips dinner looked good to me- as long as I was selling out, I might as well do it with some good ole American junk food! (I have had fried chicken only once since my arrival last year, and that was at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Stirling.) Rab got the Balmoral style chicken, which is haggis and whisky sauce over a chicken breast, with the usual steamed veggie and mashed potato sides. Our food arrived in about 15 minutes, and was not so much served to us as slung onto our table as the server raced past us and was gone in a flash, with no checking to make sure our order was correct or if we needed anything else.
The verdict on the food was as expected- mass produced and tasting only slightly better than a frozen dinner, which it most likely was. The Jack Daniels honey glaze dipping sauce that came with meal was way TOO much like a straight shot of Jack- good maybe on its own, but I wouldn’t dunk my chicken straight in it. There was no chance, however, to get another type of condiment- getting the attention of a server was a nonstarter- they were too quick for me- and the line three deep at the bar seemed not worth the bother. So much for service- you can get better at a fast food joint. The bill- also as expected- pretty cheap, less than 20 quid. That’s a bit more than you would pay at a chippy for a fish dinner, but frankly, a meal at any chippy in town would have been preferable. At least there the food is fresh.
Because everyone else in Oban is also curious about the new pub in town, we saw several friends and co-workers. We all seemed to be in agreement- if cheap is what you want, then Wetherspoons is fine. If service and good food is what you want- well, there are plenty of good eateries in town. I’m afraid, however, that its prime location right at the train and ferry terminal, is going to lure tourists in, and they won’t even go past the pier into town to try the local places. As for locals, once the novelty has worn off and they go one time, like us, that will be enough. Life is too short to eat crappy food even if it is cheap, especially when there are so many good choices in town. But a big draw for locals is the cheap prices of pints. I heard that some other pubs have had to cut the price of their pints to compete. This may hurt their bottom line, but a little competition may give us locals a break from holiday prices. It will be interesting to see how Wetherspoons, the Tesco of pubs, affects local businesses, though I’m afraid it can only hurt them. But if it forces them to take a good look at their prices and see where cuts can be made, this can only be good for the local folks and tourists alike. There has to be a balance somewhere.