Rules of the game

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London’s oldest restaurant is still one of its greatest pleasures, especially in game season

London 1798, sometime around lunch. A ruddyfaced man is sat browsing a newspaper in Thomas Rule’s new restaurant on Maiden Lane. Admiral Nelson’s fleet has just destroyed the French ships at the Battle Of The Nile, and to help pay for this forthcoming war, prime minister William Pitt The Younger has announced that from next year there would be a new levy called income tax. Two pence in the pound? Oh, that won’t last. In other news, Edward Jenner has just published some interesting findings on his smallpox vaccination. But the table is now ready. Paper is folded and the pre-lunch snifter is downed. It’s game season. And that means grouse.

More than 217 years later that restaurant at 35 Maiden Lane, in Covent Garden, is still running. It’s London’s oldest restaurant and still one of its greatest. Lauded when it opened, writers of the day were singing the praises of Rules’ “porter, pies and oysters” and remarking on the “rakes, dandies and superior intelligences who comprise its clientele”.

Over the centuries noted acolytes have included Evelyn Waugh, John  Betjeman and Graham Greene, who wrote about it in The End Of The Affair and would celebrate his birthday here. Charlie Chaplin ate here, as did Charles Dickens, and even the current James Bond film has a scene where M meets Moneypenny and Q at the restaurant. It’s as if Rules is the centre-point of a Venn diagram of Englishness, both past and present.

It’s a rare chance to spend a few hours living in an England that ceased to exist in all but a few rare corners of the country. That they chose Rules as a setting for an episode of Downton Abbey is one thing – many places in the UK are used in period dramas – but the fact it’s still a working restaurant just as you saw on screen is entirely something else.

The political cartoons that adorn the walls are a reminder of leaders gone by, while politicians still favour the place and come here to trade gossip and argue over a long lunch. And it doesn’t close between lunch and dinner, meaning a late lunch can drift into the territory of the second helping, the third bottle and the forthright opinion. And this time of year is the season to visit. It’s game season after all and this is what Rules is famous for. Rules also owns The Lartington Estate in the High Pennines so the farm-to-table ethos that others consider trendy is merely the way things have always been here.

“Game birds may contain lead shot,” the menu warns – more a sign of authenticity than serious concern as grouse, partridge, mallard, pheasant, teal, hare, rabbit and deer all appear on the menu, plus other traditional courses including oysters, salmon, potted shrimps and some brilliant pies and puddings.

It won’t win Michelin stars, it won’t change the way we eat (its menu rarely changes), and it won’t start trends in the dining scene, although it’s been doing “seasonal and local” for more than two centuries. Crucially though, it won’t let you down. Rules is a constant in British dining, an edible museum of how nobility once ate, a national treasure and a reminder that few things can top a well mixed drink, followed by hearty food and a bottle of red on a cold December day in London.

For Portfolio magazine, December 2015

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