“The oldest restaurant in London still does it well” say admirers of this immensely “comforting” piece of living history in the heart of Covent Garden. Regulars may claim to have “been coming here for years” but even the lifespan of its most loyal customer would be but a blink of the eye in Rules’ 222-year history.
The restaurant was founded by Thomas Rule as an oyster house on this Maiden Lane site in 1798 and has only been in the ownership of three families ever since. Its list of famous patron is equally as old school – think Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin – while the last celebrity to be spotted at Rules was probably when Downton’s Lady Edith lunched here.
Rules looks every inch the heritage act. Clocks chime on the quarter hour, their tinkling muffled by the crimson and gold carpets and the squeak and creak of the velvet that lines the ultra-discrete booths (no wonder Graham Greene set The End of the Affair here). It’s undeniably touristy, but slick service from staff for whom “nothing is too much trouble” and, especially, some top-notch cooking of “serious food – not fancy, just lovely” ensure that Rules is worth a visit even if you’re not in London just visiting.
The menu is a best-of-British run-down majoring in native oysters, Belted Galloway beef, pies – fish, or chicken, leek and mushroom – and what the place is most famous for: game in season, brought down from the restaurant’s own Teesdale estate in County Durham and washed down for preference with something red from the Rhone-speciality wine list.
Belt-loosening classics of the sort you rarely see any more are the best things to eat here. Steak and kidney pudding disgorging its steaming, gravy-enrobed morsels from within a suet crust, say, or classic puds such as a shimmering syrup sponge served with custard poured from a silver boat are typical of the “hearty English food served in great surroundings”.
Lighter appetites, meanwhile, are accommodated by the likes of dressed crab as white as snow, creamy scallops with a wintry salad of celeriac and apple or Dover sole, grilled or meunière and seamlessly filleted from the bone.
It won’t be to everyone’s s taste (or budget) but, say fans, “nowhere tops Rules” – “no wonder this restaurant has survived hundreds of years”.