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)
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
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)
Feast on the likes of local rabbit stuffed with black pudding with fondant potato and kale (£12).
Hedley, Stocksfield, Northumberland (01661 843 607)
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)