Rules, 35 Maiden Lane Covent Garden, London WC2

 

I hadn't been to Rules since the mid-1980s and all I remembered of the place was a heavy atmosphere of dark wood, hefty carpets, thick sauces and sturdy-bottomed English lunchers. Heaviness was my main impression; but then history, of a dense, richly-flavoured kind, hangs around Rules like mayoral chains. It's England's oldest restaurant, founded by Thomas Rule in 1798. It's been owned by only three families in 200 years. It's seen off nine English monarchs. It turns up in several novels: the adulterous couple in Graham Greene's The End of the Affair enjoyed their first lurve tryst here over a furtive dish of seductive onions.

When in 1971 it was threatened by the GLC with relocation to another site, John Betjeman wrote to the public enquiry, calling Rules "an excellent restaurant... its interior on the ground floor is unique and irreplaceable, and part of literary and theatrical London". Thackeray and Dickens chowed down here. Generations of actors, from Buster Keaton to Larry Olivier, strutted and fretted here. And as everyone knows, George VII, when still Prince of Wales, used to heave his royal tumtum up a secret staircase and romance Lily Langtry.

Enough of the history, I hear you cry. But dear reader, Rules is a phenomenon because of the history. Walk into the hushed, plushy, murmurous interior and it wallops you in the face. A texture of English hedonism and yeoman greed, green-room gossip and nursery puddings, Jorrocks and JB Priestley. This place is as English as treason – authentic Englishness, not some Downton Abbey version.

You move in a little dream of nostalgia across the red-gold carpet, taking in the crimson-velvet booths, the great mirrors hung with hops, the walls crammed with paintings of Belle Époque actresses, the deer-head antlers and trophies mounted as though in a stately home, an astonishing painting of Margaret Thatcher got up as (can it be?) Joan of Arc... You start to exclaim at everything. The vast and beautiful menu! The super-cold dry sherry! The offhand-ness, butler-like imperturbability of the waiters!

"Rules," says the restaurant, "serves the traditional food of this country at its best. It specialises in classic game cookery, oysters, pies, puddings" plus their own Pennine beef. The dishes on the menu aren't complicated, but it's hard to imagine them done better. You could tell by looking that the Cornish fish soup with crab and mullet being spooned from its copper tureen would be fabulous, the orange nectar earthily satisfying and creamily rich, the stock rasping your throat. Pressed wild rabbit came in a hefty D-shape, its nursery colours of pink and cyclamen brutally invaded by half-roundels of black pudding. The yummy, slithery shards of rabbit were held in place by cider jelly and given a zing of English mustard.

Trenchermen can order Steak and Kidney Pie and Pudding, Saddle of Lamb, Fish and Chips, Smoked Cod, Wild Halibut (or Rib of beef for two at £64), but they're missing the point. One comes here for the game – widgeon, teal, ptarmigan, woodcock, pheasant, venison, hare – the reeking woodland stuff that's hung until it's pongy with decay. My Grey Leg Partridge was served whole, and was a terrific sight – a tiny bird with legs as long as Cyd Charisse's, its carcass stuffed with thyme. Around it, like respectful hierophants, were arrayed bread sauce, gravy (they don't say "jus" at Rules), redcurrant jelly, celeriac gratin, purple sprouting broccoli, parsnip and bacon crisps. Such an orchestra of tastes. In the middle, the partridge yielded up its chickeny-ducky flesh only after a struggle, but the combination of tastes was astounding. The bird's juices had been left to drain on to a slice of toast lightly smeared with pâté – a final extravagance.

Roast Wild Duck came in four sturdy but delicious tranches that proved a little too gamey-flavoured for my lady guest, though she admired the pastry parcel of duck meat with bacon and the curly kale that accompanied it. "This is very much not a lady's dish," she said. "Very strongly flavoured and quite chewy, but not unpleasantly so." A couple of glasses of Chateau Le Pey Medoc washed down the dark and gamey flesh. By now, we were a bit blithering with English cooking. I felt as if I'd gone 10 rounds with John Bull, Mr Punch, Moll Flanders and Gilbert and Sullivan. But you can't leave Rules without trying the Apple, Sultana and Cinnamon Crumble with vanilla custard. It was heaven, a plate of milky-nutty fruitiosity that clung to your teeth.

You end a meal in Rules beaming at your great good fortune in being alive, having all five senses and being able to eat God's English bounty, expertly cooked and served as it might have been for Graham Greene or Ava Gardner, only probably much better. Not everyone will appreciate its old-fashioned virtue. But at 3.30pm on a chilly day in October, I have to record that I utterly, utterly, utterly, utterly loved it.

Rules, 35 Maiden Lane Covent Garden, London WC2 (020-7836 5314)

Food 5 stars
Ambience 5 stars
Service 4 stars

About £160 for two with wine

Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"

Side Orders: Wild at heart

St John

Current game offerings on the menu here include roast grouse (£21) and pheasant and trotter pie (£34.50 for two).

26 St John Street, London EC1 (020-3301 8069)

The Feathers

Feast on the likes of local rabbit stuffed with black pudding with fondant potato and kale (£12).

Hedley, Stocksfield, Northumberland (01661 843 607)

Gidleigh Park

The game comes direct from Dartmoor – try the saddle of venison with braised belly pork, chestnut purée and roasted vegetables.

Gidleigh Park, Devon (01647 432 367)

News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
News
news
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions