Address: 34-35 Maiden Ln, London WC2E 7LB
Day: Friday night
I think it’s one of the marks of a civilised society that people find things more interesting the older they are. But as a student of history, I’m probably biased. For me, a room is a more interesting if interesting things have happened there, if fascinating people have walked through it and talked in it. Places are enriched by their stories.
It was this magnetism of the past that drew us to Rules, London’s oldest restaurant, founded in 1798 by Thomas Rule. Over the next several centuries it has hosted some of the world’s greatest actors (Laurence Olivier and Charlie Chaplin were regulars), Charles Dickens scribbled ideas for his novels at its cramped tables, Edward VII held secret meetings with his lover, Lillie Langtry, in its private dining room, and a bomb fell on it during the Blitz. There has been much water under this bridge since it first started hawking oysters 220 years ago.
Does that make its food taste any nicer? Not really. If I was judging Rules purely on the basis of culinary quality, I wouldn’t shout its name from the rooftops. It serves heavy, solid food in the classic British style, the menu rich with hare, deer, pheasant, pigeon and quail, anything that can be shot in a field essentially. Indeed, Rules sources much of its game meat from the Lartington Estate, which is owned by John Mayhew, also the proprietor of the restaurant.
I ordered a middlewhite pork terrine to the start, which came with piccalilli and toast. It was a big wedge of meat, thick and tasty. But it wasn’t bursting with the earthy, farm-rich flavours of the very best terrine. There was something subtle missing from it.
My partner in culinary crime had smoked salmon with scrambled eggs, which in most places would have been considered a hearty brunch, but at Rules is just a tantalising warm-up for the main event.
For my main-course, I had a grilled leg of lamb, spiced up with some curried spinach, big boulders of potato, and minted yoghurt. Think British country pub meets India. The lamb was good quality, but slightly burnt, and then served freezing cold, which was an unusual combination: as you bit into the chilly flesh the charcoaled flavour gave a taunting reminder that once upon a time this meat must have been hot.
My partner in culinary crime ate a Gressingham duck breast, bathed in a beetroot puree. She reported it as delicious, on a par with the legendary duck we were once served at Comptoir Gascon, opposite Smithfield Market, so many moons ago. For once, size was what let Rules down. My partner in culinary crime was left searching the plate in vain for a final morsel of duck.
Finally, we shared a bread and butter pudding, with prunes and custard. It was simple, warm, familiar and comforting, nothing extraneous or extravagant, made just as bread and butter pudding should be.
And all this is served in a unique set of surroundings, creaky old stair cases, faded, frayed carpets, thousands of paintings of long-dead grandees wearing monocles or hunting foxes, stuffed pheasants glaring from the walls, and a rather alarming, more than life-sized, mural of Margaret Thatcher as Britannia triumphantly standing over the Falkland Islands. This is a proudly British restaurant, with a legendary past, a vibrant present, and occasionally suspect food. A little bit like the country then.