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Playing by the Rules at London’s Oldest Restaurant

Open since 1798, the very British establishment is a portal into the capital's culinary past

Henry Lawford

Rarely has a restaurant name encouraged the traditionally-spoofed bad writer’s opening, “the dictionary defines [insert the subject of the essay here],” more nakedly than Rules. The Covent Garden joint has been famously and steadfastly observing very British, very old-school rules about what constitutes an ideal menu since its opening in 1798.

Rules describes itself as specialising in “game cookery, oysters, pies and puddings,” and it has appeared in books by Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, as well as John Le Carré. It also stakes the claim of being London’s oldest restaurant, and of having once served Dickens. When under threat of demolition in the early seventies, it was another author, John Betjeman, who leapt to its lyrical defence in a letter to The Greater London Council: “A place which has been constantly used by actors, managers and famous people, as Rules has,” he wrote, “acquires an invisible atmosphere, just as a church frequented by praying people acquires an atmosphere. We have all experienced it in our lives. We can sense it and it will not photograph.”

David Bowie at Rules
Bowie World

It’s true that ‘atmosphere’ is hard to capture or define — as equally elusive for a London author as a visiting tourist, gazing up at the restaurant’s gold-and-red clad exterior. Rules gives credence to a particular slice of British nostalgia: that of the upper classes, the richest family dynasties, country houses linked by a chug of Rolls Royces. Think of Woody Allen’s London movies, in which he’s as creepily infatuated with Thames-view apartments and great, sprawling Kent estates as with his muse Scarlett Johansson’s lips. Think of James Bond films — in one of which Rules quite literally appears — though the author has only ever watched the James Bond film in which the eponymous spy is played by Peter Sellers. The popularity of this historic restaurant as a holidaymaker’s spot, providing a travel experience otherwise lost to two hundred years of history and The National Trust, is undiminished. “Languishing there…since God fell off the bus,” Marina O’Loughlin winks affectionately in The Guardian, “serving doughy, doughty Brit food and carafes of claret to its audience of duffers, grandees and wealthy tourists,” Rules wears the taut, effective maintenance of its old-money grandeur lightly; even as three courses come to forty, maybe fifty, pounds a head.

Appropriately, Rules features in Spectre by Sam Mendes
Sam Mendes

Food and nostalgia intersect: 

“history, of a dense, richly flavoured kind,” writes critic John Walsh, “hangs around Rules like mayoral chains.” Opinion is divided as to whether Rules’ food is ‘richly flavoured’; “dense” is less contentious. Still, the place knows that its strength is hardly in the outright pioneering of new trends; it knows too that trendiness is sometimes overrated. No true Brit would ever think that spiralised courgette was pasta, even if they ate it willingly and liked it. Currently, the restaurant’s menu boasts a steak and kidney suet pudding, rump of vension, braised haunch of hare, beef cheek, and several game courses, including grouse, which “may contain lead shot.” “To eat here,” says O’Loughlin later in her fond and tongue-in-cheek review, “is to allow yourself to sink into a … fantasy of a past we've never experienced. We're delighted to be seated beside a table of gents who look like escapees from a vintage Punch cartoon. I love the perfectly mixed martinis and the straight-faced camp of beer in silver tankards, and a cocktail made with Pinky vodka called the Kate Middleton…[Rules] evolves … in such a way that you simply don't notice.”

In the previous history of The Savoy’s storied American Bar, the question arose as to why exactly writers drink. A passage read in research, but not cited, came from Kingsley Amis, who suggested that the reason was a kind of "displaced stage fright.” “A writer's audience,” he added, “is and remains invisible to him, but if he is any good he is acutely and continuously aware of it, and never more so while it waits for him to come on…Alcohol not only makes you less self-critical, it reduces fear." Reviewing Rules in 1970, the elder Amis was especially un-fearful, truthful, and self-confident. It’s a leap in the not-so-dark to suggest he was under the influence; the evidence, based purely on his alcohol-and-writing credo, suggests that he was. 

“Through the written word,” he quips, “Rules Restaurant in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, makes an interesting impression: oysters, George III, porter, Dickens, steak and kidney pudding. Thackeray (though they call him William Makepeace Thackeray now), tripe and onions, the Prince-of-Wales-and-Lily-Langtry, vintage port … [but] I find it hard to imagine an establishment Elysian enough to dispel the memory of two of the most disgusting full-dress meals I have ever tried to eat in my life.” The tripe is likened to “boiled knitting.” Venison is said to be like “biltong…dry and void of flavor,” and the steak and kidney pudding “like the smell of turkey Whiskas,” and the whole meal “hogwash.” It is, by all accounts, not a review, but an evisceration. It could not have made a more concerted, more malign attempt at burning down the place’s reputation if it came with matches and a can of petrol.

Rules in its heyday
Sound of the Hound

Showing one more very British quality — that of self-deprecation — Rules have reproduced the article in full on their official website. Marvellously, they have done so to rebuke a bad review in Time Out, which they felt was obviously and inelegantly aping Kingsley’s pan. They even kept Amis’ dreadful title, “Where Disaster Rules”. (Heaven knows how many puns have been nixed by heaven knows how many copy-editors since Rules was first reviewed in print — Google one up immediately at that bastion of subtlety, The Daily Mail, although there must be more.) Self-seriousness has no place in a fantasy: nostalgia should be, if it’s done correctly, unpretentious. Old-style Britishness is necessarily a little ragged ‘round the edges, and a little comic — like James Bond, but played by Peter Sellers.