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Although I am a great admirer of the changes which have been wrought in British restaurants as a result of increasing cosmopolitanism, there are few things so satisfying as a really good English lunch. Let us face it, when one spends a weekend at a good country house one is never served silly towers of half-steamed vegetables and weirdly adulterated creamed potatoes.
What you get is often what the estate or its neighbours produce and the food is generally quite simply prepared. Leaving aside the more traditional fare of beef, lamb and pork; roast game birds, venison and rabbit are staples, and the most exotic dish is likely to be jugged hare, if you are lucky. Loyd Grossman's ready-made sauces have not yet made inroads into this territory.
That is why it is such a pleasure to eat at Rules, the ancient restaurant in Covent Garden, which was there long before the former flower market became popular. "We specialise in classic game cookery", is the phrase which heads the menu, followed by the mouth-watering and blood-lusty sub-heading: "Feathered and furred game."
It is a place which regularily attracts some of the most senior businessmen in the land and also quite a lot of spivvy wannabees with lots of money to spend. They are usually identifiable by their use of mobile phones throughout lunch. Women tend not to like it all that much. Game seems to be far more the province of men, in whom it brings out the hunter-gatherer instincts. The nasty smells, images of rampage and murder and occasional bits of lead shot in the flesh deter the fairer sex (with the notable exception of my mother-in-law, whose favourite dish is bloody, flash-roasted grouse within hours of it being shot).
Rules has a special place in the heart of serious London diners abd is all the more special for it not being known about by everyone. As a general rule, only relatively wealthy people go there and, strangely, it is often first choice for supposedly confidential lunches involving job offers. I have been offered two jobs there over the years and on both occasions i was surrounded by friends who immediately guessed what my lunch was about. Still, we continue to believe that, because it is outside the City, it is somehow discreet.
Rules has a wonderful history. It started as an oyster bar, founded in 1798 - the year Napoleon opened his campaign in Egypt - by a wastrel called Thomas Rule and according to the restaurant's brochure was a great surprise to his family. Contemporaray writers raved about its "porter, pies and oysters" and the "rakes, dandies and superior intelligencies who compromise its clientele."
Not too much has changed in the intervening years and if, like me, you are a fan of Boswell's London Journal, the most definitive account of late 18th Century over-indulgence, then you must appreciate the link between those times and these. Poor Bosell died at 55, three years before Rules opened, and in any case it was probably a cut above his particular brand of chop-and-whore-house, but many other famous names dined there, among them Dickens, Thackeray, galsworthy and Wells. Unfortunately, the present management (probably quite rightly, from a commercial point of view) appears more interested in the actors who have been regulars, including Olivier, Laughton, Gable and Chaplin.
The private rooms are very good. I have attended many a dinner there - usually the annual dinner of the White City All Stars. On my last visit, I started with the chicken liver foie gras parfait on a sauterne jelly with walnut & raisin bread. Then I had a difficult choice between wild rabbit, fallow deer, wild highland red deer, braised shank of venison, duck or pigeon, the last of which I selected and I was very pleased with my choice.
My two companions can no longer remember what they had, but assure me it was marvellous and indeed we have all been there so many times that this is no surprise.
I used to think the note on the menu: "We do not recommend the drinking of excess alcohol with oysters," was just a witty joke from Rules' management. naturally, one must always have excess alcohol when eating oysters. one of the chief delights of oysters is that, when you are in the mood for them, you are also in the mood for over indulgence of all sorts.
For me, and most of its longer-standing customers, Rules has always been a place for celebrating the things of which modern, sterile lefties disapprove: food which has been killed for sport, much of it hung until it is smelly; large quantities of red wine and port; and last, but certainly not least, cigars.
I have been a fan for 15 years. indded, I have arranged large, private events there on several occasions, including dinners of the White City All Stars, my cricket club, which is a mark of high respect.
The menu is bewitching. Most game birds, including snipe and teal, in season, wild roe deer and then there's hare and much more. "We specialise in classic game cookery," emblazoned across the top of the menu, is no idle boast. Rules has the most enviable, comprehensive game supplies of any restaurant I know in Britain, much of it from the restaurant's own estate, lartington park in the High Pennines.
And then they go and ruin it. Last year (2000), a smoking ban was introduced, instantly alienating a large chunk of customers (it is still permitted upstairs if you care to hire a private room, at considerable cost). Suddenly, that note on the menu about oysters did not seem like so much of a joke but more of an early warning -missed by all of us - that dark forces were at work: a harbinger against the hard-bingers.
So I stopped going, as did most of my friends. John Carlisle, of the "Tobacco Manufacturers' Association, wsas so incensed that he paid a special visit to distribute cigars to all the customers in protest, but has not been back to Rules since.
However, curious to see how the place was shaping up since effectively barring many of the nicest people I know, I visited Rules again a couple of weeks ago with three friends - the chefs Marco Pierre White, Charlie Rushton and Richard Phillips. The food has not changed since my previous visit. It never offered the most sophisticated of cooking, it must be said, being closer to the quality in a country house than a top restaurant. Good, solid fare but made from exciting ingredients.
I had the venison carpaccio, which was good, followed by jugged hare, which was enjoyable but could have been better. expert judgement around the table held that the sauce was too gooey and the hare neither matured long enough to bring out its flavour, nor cooked long enough to be properly falling off the bone. Another mistake in this dish was that it appeared to have been sprinkled with a jar of Chinese Five Spice. We also had guinea fowl which was judged quite good.
There are some fine wines on the list. we opted for a decent little claret and were not at all disappointed.
We might have had a pudiing or a savoury but the need for thick clouds of tobacco smoke around us had become overpowering and we went elsewhere for our digestifs.
This anti-smoking policy is madness. For one thing, it has been introduced, I understand, purely to please Americans who only want to eat there because Rules, aged 203, is London's oldest restaurant. These Americans turn up dressed for a cafeteria dinner and scarcely rink a thing, so i don't see how they can provide Rules with a decent profit.
When they arrive in sufficient number they also drive away British business. in my mind Rules used to be in the same caegory of restaurant as Wiltons - distinguished, commendably old-fashioned and very English. That is not achieved by the quality of the cooking. It is almost entirely due to the calibre of the customers. If you change them, you change your ambience. Just look at Simpsons-in-the-Strand which welcomed so many tourists the natives stopped going.
The other reason not to kowtow to the health fascists is because their next target will be game. It is not killed or prepared according to strict Brussels guidelines and it often contains lead shot. How long will this be tolerated by the forces of darkness? Rules' capitulation on the smoking front will be seen as a victory for those who are destroying our food production with outlandish and intrusive diktats.
Finally, cigar smokers are by far the biggest spenders in restaurants, and restaurateurs alienate them at their peril. A few days after visiting Rules I went to new restaurant in west London, Cotto. There were five of us, two of whom smoked cigars. One tried before the meal to ignite a small, mild Cafe Creme - utterly inoffensive _ and was prevented by the management. We apid for our drinks and walked out, depriving Cotto of around £250. if Rules continues with its Draconian policy, I predict it will find itself in trouble. perhaps it should change its name to Stupid Rules.