“ 18 High Street, Market Harborough, Leicestershire, LE16 7NJ. Tel: +44 1858 469231 „
Some readers might have the impression that I can't 'eat cheap' and I spend my life hamming it up in so-called Gastro-pubs eating food that's been - as my Grandad would have said - 'mucked about with'. It seems appropriate to come clean and admit to my guilty secret. I am (and I'll whisper it quietly) a bit of a fan of the budget pub-chain J.D.Wetherspoons and my outlet of choice is the Sugar Loaf on the High Street in Market Harborough.
There was a time when admitting to eating at JDW's was a bit like admitting you clipped coupons or watched daytime TV. People who can afford not to aren't supposed to like eating in bargain basement pub chains. It's also true to say that until the introduction of the ban on smoking in pubs you probably couldn't have paid me to eat in a Weatherspoons. However, times are tough and who can resist lunch and a drink with change from a fiver?
Market Harborough is a dainty and discretely posh little market town that's our destination of choice for a little light retail therapy. I say 'light' because Market Harborough is the type of place that's filled with twee little shops that sell stuff you don't need or really want but which looks pretty in the windows. We go fairly regularly due to my love of the Age Concern Charity Bookshop and due to my utter loathing of all the other towns of any size in the area.
J.D. Weatherspoons is a national chain that used to be the type of place where binge-drinking youths had punch-ups on a Friday or Saturday night and under-age girls got sizzled on Bacardi Breezers and threw up in the toilets. From my student days I recall an evil drink called Grog that contributed to keeping the local police cells well utilised. JDW specialises in the 'pile 'em high and flog 'em cheap' school of both booze and catering. They keep the menu fairly simple, offer shockingly good bargain deals, don't pull the usual stunt of offering a cheap meal and then stinging you for the drinks, have free wi-fi and pretty good service.
Our most recent visit they were in the middle of a promotion on 'birthday wines' to celebrate 30 years in business. They'd tracked down wines which somehow shared their birthday theme and were offering them at the same price as their regular house wines. One was an antipodean wine (which is shorthand for 'I can't remember if it was Aus or NZ') that had been growing vines for 30 years, another that had first bottled their wine 30 years ago and so on.
If you want to spend a bit more on a meal you can - there are lots of options in the £5-10 range and you could do starters, main course and pudding if you were really hungry - but we go for the bargain deals. There are 5 or 6 basic value meals at £2.99, and a few more for a pound more and we always find something on the list. We used to do their '2 meals for £6' which crept up a bit over the past couple of years and didn't seem to be available on the latest menu. Let's be honest, if I wanted to pay more, I'd go and eat somewhere more swanky.
My personal favourite is the 5 bean vegetarian chilli for £3.99 which comes with tortilla chips and either rice or chips (or on this occasion when they got muddled in the kitchen, both). We once made the mistake of ordering fish and chips and the fish was absolutely horrible. Hubby chose ham, egg and chips for a pound less and picked up a J2O for me and a large diet Pepsi for himself. That's one of the downsides to JDW - they are a Pepsi chain and they don't do Coke and for diet Coke purists like me, the alternative brown fizz just doesn't cut the mustard. The total bill for all of this was less than £10. When he returned with the drinks and said the food would be about 20 minutes, I popped down the road to WH Smith to buy a newspaper and we settled in to sup and wait.
The interior of the Sugar Loaf is worthy of note. It was apparently once a grocers shop and takes its name from the cones (or loaves) of sugar that were sold there. Today it's a large and rather deep-set pub with several different dining areas. We usually head to the raised platform on the left as you go in, close to what looks like some kind of Indian maharajah's palanquin (if you have a lively imagination) and there's a second platform on the right. Further into the pub there are rows of little booths that always look quite tempting, and if you head all the way through to the back, you reach the toilets which I, with my cast iron bladder and dislike of pub toilets, always avoid. The bar is long and stretches about half the length of the pub.
My husband always does the ordering and often comes back frustrated or baffled either by the odd behaviour of the bar staff or his fellow customers. On this recent visit the woman in front of him ordered a £4 bottle of wine (scary idea huh?) and got ratty with the barman when he told her it was out of stock and she could have a similar £8 bottle but he would only charge her half the price. Would you make an argument out of something like that? Me neither.
When our food arrived we were half way through our drinks and happy to see the waiter. He handed me my chilli and said he'd be back with the chips which completely confused me as I already had a mound of rice and some tortilla chips on my plate. Hubby was happy with his ham and egg and helped me out with my bonus chips. The 5 been chilli is always tasty, not too hot, not too bland - pretty much they way you'd want it to be. If you are a pedant you can count to make absolutely sure there really are 5 different types of beans or you can just trust JDW. Chips and rice was just too much carbohydrate in one place but I really couldn't argue about the value.
I'm a bit of a creature of habit and do tend to keep drifting towards the chilli but if I were more adventurous there are plenty of other options for a fish-eating but otherwise mostly veggie diner. There's a veggie burger, several fishy options (but skip the fish and chips) and several salads and pasta dishes. Someone at the table next to us last time had two plates of fish and chips which just seemed like gluttony. I have on the odd occasion seen people piling into a massive brownie sundae that looked like it could feed a family all on its own for just a couple of quid. Coffees and teas are also a bargain if you don't feel up to a full meal.
If you don't mind fighting your way through the smokers crowding round the front door, you can be pretty sure of a bargain lunch of entirely adequate quality and proportions.