The Van Dyck dates back to 1926 when it was originally a cinema, from which the pub takes its name. In a subsequent incarnation it was also a bingo hall, until its conversion by Wetherspoons in 1998. Despite their best attempts and an outlay of over one million pounds, it still feels very much like a bingo hall today. Access is gained by means of a wide flight of stone steps that run across the front of the building, though since the company claim that all their pubs are wheelchair friendly, it’s worth giving them a ring to see if there’s a less obvious way into The Van Dyck should you need to find a place that will accommodate one. Close to a former railway line (now a cycle path), and just around the corner from The Railway public house (previously the much missed Peckett’s Flyer), the Van Dyck has taken local history into account and has been converted to fleetingly resemble a Victorian railway terminal. This accounts for the hugely proportioned but beautiful old-fashioned lanterns hanging from the high ceiling - a wiser person than I may be able to explain the five enormous assorted flying fish that mysteriously hang there with them. Evenings usually find The Van Dyck packed to capacity with students and young people, but it’s considerably quieter mid-day. Many of the afternoon clientele are pensioners attracted by the low prices, although the presence during my visit of local character Brian the Miserable Misogynist, AKA Insulting Git (you know I love you really, Brian!) could explain why so few of them were female. Perhaps it was just because it was a Wednesday that the majority of the staff wore the vacant expressions of underpaid employees whose only motivation was to reach the end of another shift, as Wetherspoons are said (by themselves at least!) to offer their workers high rates of pay, a say in the direction of the company, and ‘great opportunities for progression’. If you doubt this, take a
look at the walls of The Van Dyck, where recruitment ads are freely displayed, suggesting to me a degree of desperation more telling than anything written within them. Like the others in the chain, The Van Dyck has a ‘no music’ rule. It wouldn’t normally bother me if there were no music playing in an ordinary pub, but here it seems to make it more noticeable that you’re sitting in a place that’s distinctly lacking in atmosphere. Having said that, it’s not unpleasant, at least in comparison to The Staple Hill Oak - the only other Wetherspoons pub I’m familiar with – a converted supermarket that has retained its original ambience so well it almost comes as a surprise to realise you can’t buy your groceries there. I’ll admit to preferring my pubs small and traditional, and so on every occasion I’ve visited The Van Dyck, it’s always been someone else’s idea. Since being there at all was a bit of a departure from my usual style, I decided to play safe and stick with a pint of Fosters, although Wetherspoons do have a policy of encouraging smaller and lesser-known brewers – one I feel other public houses would do well to take up too. The company assign something like a quarter of the space in their pubs to non-smokers, and have reputedly spent around £100,000 in each one on state-of-the-art ventilation systems. However, being the polluted types we are, Mr Cake and I made our way to a table in the smoking area, somewhere in the region of where the Victorian railway traveller would expect to find the tracks. Growing up with a dad who made his own brew in huge quantities, I was probably taught the visible signs of a good beer before I ever went to school and learned anything else. At an extremely competitive £1.70 a pint, my Fosters displayed all of them, while still managing to taste totally uninspiring – I’ve had worse, but this was really dis
appointing! My typing finger had begun to tingle from the moment I walked in the door – I could feel a review coming on, and so in the interests of fair play, I asked my husband for a second opinion on the beer. “Six out of ten”. A couple more of these later, and we both decided it was time to eat. Representing as we were the ‘Extremely Skint But Still Just About Solvent’ sector of society, we picked the Wetherspoons ‘two meals for £5.50’ deal. With less than half a dozen options to this, I chose the vegetarian lasagne, while my husband went for the cottage pie. Waiting time for the food to appear seemed around average, although to be honest I’d lost interest in the idea just after ordering and I’d almost forgotten about it by the time of its arrival, so those with a genuine appetite on may have considered it excessive. Portions were much as you’d expect for the money, and the food held no surprises – it looked unexciting, and it *was* unexciting. I wouldn’t expect everyone to be the fan of garlic that I am (no, don’t back away from your screen, I haven’t indulged today!), but I do think this dish could have benefited from a bit of basil at the very least, as it tasted overwhelmingly of spinach and very little else. It was topped off by a layer of cheese that had been grilled for so long it had to be abandoned due to the fact that no power saw had been provided with my knife and fork. The mixed salad promised as an accompaniment turned out to be two small, limp pieces of Lollo Rosso, a few bits of equally unhappy looking Cos lettuce, and a couple of slightly wrinkled cherry tomatoes that were donated to my husband. The chips (a bit of a heavy choice, and unnecessary with pasta in my view) were an improvement on the thin, crunchy ‘fried chicken takeaway’ type I was expecting, and could have passed for home made. Around four forkfuls into my meal,
I looked up to ask Mr Cake if he was enjoying his cottage pie, and found he’d cleared his plate. It’s safe to say that he approved. Time now to investigate the loos, and I found them to be clean and spacious, with a rota on the wall indicating that they are inspected regularly, signed by the last member of staff to do so, together with the time of said inspection. You can also buy sanitary protection and condoms (coloured – hue’s tempted?!) from a couple of vending machines. Mr Cake reports a similar story after visiting the gents, where the machines offer condoms and… Smints. That’s right, girls – we get the pain and inconvenience every month, they get confectionery! Overall, I’d recommend The Van Dyck to a friend as a place where you can find a beer and the kind of food that just fills a gap, at very reasonable prices. If you go there expecting nothing dazzling, you won’t be disappointed, and you may even come away as satisfied with your meal as my husband was with his cottage pie. The Van Dyck Forum can be found at 748 – 756 Fishponds Road, Bristol, BS16 3U. Telephone 0117 9651337. Opening hours are 11 am – 11 pm (Monday – Saturday), and 12 am to 10.30 pm (Sunday). Just one thing, ladies - watch out for Brian!