Cambridge has the fourth most expensive average pint in the UK, according to a March surveyHarry Hult for Varsity

From the eve of the second world war up until the election of Tony Blair, the vast building that occupies 38–39 St Andrews Street had served as Cambridge’s largest cinema. The upstairs of the building keeps the flame alive, operating to this day as an Arts Picturehouse. The first two floors, however, have been reconsecrated to an altogether different end.

Hundreds of students and locals still stream through the doors of The Regal at a certain point in the evening, but they are hardly after the magic of the silver screen; the building now hosts the nation’s third biggest J.W. Wetherspoon pub, Cambridge’s largest and cheapest commercial drinkery.

Despite its vast clientele, the online footprint of the establishment provides a distinctly mixed impression. Many online reviews affirm its status as “good”, “decent”, or “cheap and cheerful” – the what-you-see-is-what-you-get ideal of a Wetherspoons – yet Tripadvisor is also replete with complaints of rude and hostile staff, poor service, and a trigger happy policy of kicking out customers.

“You can definitely tell who is a Cambridge student and who isn’t”

I sat down with one bar worker at The Regal to get his perspective on the pub from behind the taps. Far from hostile, he seemed occasionally nervous about talking to the paper (“This feels like a job interview!”) and has requested to remain anonymous.

The sense I got from our conversation was that perceived hostilities are probably the results of a distinctly hectic work environment. “It doesn’t compare to a normal village pub or town pub. You’re never going to get the same level of queueing. Sometimes you literally can’t see the rest of the pub because of how busy the bar is. There’s just a horde of people in front of you.” He tells me he often gets tired of “middle-aged men staring at me like I’m stupid”.

One point he is insistent upon is his blamelessness for badly poured pints: “Sometimes it’s not your fault when it comes out half head!” (Shipyard Pale Ale is, apparently, the worst offender.) In one evocative anecdote he recalls being reduced to tears by the fumes produced when pouring out a tray’s worth of sambuca shots.

Yet The Regal is not always the “hellhole” it can become on a warm weekend evening. There is something of the good-humoured war story about how he recalls many of the pub’s everyday struggles. Particularly strong is the sense of camaraderie he has with his co-workers: “The main reason that most people stay working at Spoons is the people. The culture’s great. Really you’re all just friends. It can all get quite cliquey but for the most part you’re always working with at least one person you like and can get on with and can have banter with and that’s what gets you through a shift.”

“Every week you get another fucker in a costume”

He also sings the praises of Wetherspoons more broadly, as a more consistent and reliable employer with considerably greater perks than any number of small, independent pubs which lack the robust HR departments of a massive chain. He certainly has his political disagreements with the chain’s owner, Brexiteer-in-Chief Tim Martin, but is drily unwilling to “blaspheme” his authority: “I have my opinions, but at the end of the day, he pays my bills.”

I was intrigued as to his thoughts on Cambridge students. The Regal is, in his words, one of the key places where “worlds collide” in Cambridge. The combination of town, gown, and copious amounts of cheap alcohol is too fascinating a mix to resist questioning. He didn’t exactly dispel any of the negative stereotypes one would associate with the student body: “You can definitely tell who is a Cambridge student and who isn’t. Cambridge students tend to be more annoying as customers. They can be very entitled and they can be very loud. They’ll just stand in front of the bar and won’t listen to you. You get a lot of people who look down on you for working because they’re obviously not allowed to have jobs!”

This isn’t a blanket condemnation of the students per se. His biggest single subject of complaint are the drinking societies: “Every week you get another fucker in a costume.” His impression of the kindlier Cambridge students, however, as “mild-mannered and nice” is no less on brand with what one might expect. Old truths, it seems, die hard.


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Why is The Regal quite so buzzing as it is? My interviewee is under no illusions: “Because it’s cheap.” Cambridge, according to a survey conducted in March by Carrington Dean, has the fourth most expensive average pint in the UK. At the many more historic and pleasant establishments around the town, prices can reach six, seven, and in rare instances eight pounds. The popularity of the local Spoons is a victory in sheer calculation.

It is no matter, in that case, that the Regal is “honestly more expensive than most other Spoons in the country”; it is still, other than the college bars, the cheapest place to get a drink. My interviewee confesses that, even if it wouldn’t be his “dream job”, he still has “a certain fondness for the place”.

I must admit that it’s an attitude I share. Partaking in the Spoons pub quiz is undoubtedly one of the better ways to waste an evening. There are many places in the world I’d much rather be than The Regal, and yet I seem to find myself ushered into its noisy interiors with surprising frequency. As one Cambridge student I spoke to put it: “When sober it’s questionable; when drunk there’s no place I’d rather be.”

I can’t really begrudge it the role it plays in the city, and I doubt it will lose that role until somewhere conspicuously cheaper comes along. Until then, The Regal will retain its crown, a massive monument to its own economic necessity.