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
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
News
news
Life and Style
Jack Cooksey goes for the grand unveiling - moments before dropping his new iPhone 6 on the floor
iphone launch
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
football
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

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

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week