When you’ve been around for as long as Rules, I suspect you develop the sort of nonchalance towards being snubbed by awards ceremonies that would do Peter O’Toole proud.
Still, I was sorry to see that London’s oldest restaurant hasn’t made the final five of the Enduring Classic category at the inaugural World Restaurant Awards, which takes place in Paris next month.
Covent Garden classic Rules has been snubbed at next month’s inaugural World Restaurant Awards, despite being London’s oldest restaurant
True, the Covent Garden restaurant might not have endured for quite as long as Japan’s 400-year-old Hyotei. But compared to 231-year-old Rules, the shortlisted likes of La Mère Brazier, Peter Luger, Elkano and Paul Bocuse are but spring chickens to Rules’ well-hung meat.
Thomas Rule opened his oyster house on Maiden Lane in 1798. In the intervening two-and-a bit centuries, it has been owned by only three families and amassed a visitor book that Chiltern Firehouse would kill for: Dickens and Thackeray, Charlie Chaplin and Laurence Olivier, Paul Newman and Harrison Ford, Ava Gardner and Joan Collins.
Ben McCormack says 231-year-old Rules – London’s most ancient restaurant – is a glorious treat
Edward VII romanced Lillie Langtry in what is now the upstairs bar, although that’s not exactly a claim to fame; Teddy and the Jersey Lily got it on in so many dining rooms around town that they proved that the only food of love is food itself.
Except, perhaps, for the oyster that gave the future king food poisoning and led to Rules being shunned by high society. Aristocrats, it seems, like their aphrodisiacs risk-free.
When Rules was faced with demolition in 1971, John Betjeman described the restaurant’s interior as “unique and irreplaceable, and part of literary and theatrical London”.
In the heart of London’s theatre-land, Covent Garden Rules has long been a hub for the literary and theatrical set
There’s enough plush red and gold fabric on display to dress a battalion of Chelsea Pensioners. Walls are hung with oil paintings of porcelain-skinned society belles and alcoves are crammed with alabaster busts. Clocks chime on the quarter hour, ticking down the centuries.
No designer – or scriptwriter – could create such an abundance of authentic character. When Downton Abbey filmed Lady Edith lunching at Rules, it was a fantasy version of Britain’s heritage upstaged by the real thing.
Such a ripe slice of ye olde London is inevitably catnip to tourists, but when I’m in Paris all I want is the best steak tartare and confit de canard served with lashings of ooh-la-la. So who can blame them for coming to Rules for cottage pie and bread-and-butter pudding while imagining that M, Q and Miss Moneypenny are intriguing on the next table, as they were in Spectre?
Dishes at Rules embody ye olde London, but will impress locals and tourists alike
And while Rules may be touristy, it has never been a tourist trap, thanks to the kitchen’s unwavering commitment to serving the best British ingredients in classic recipes that showcase the pinnacle of British cookery.
Grouse, oysters, pies and Belted Galloway beef are the headline acts, much of it brought down from the restaurant’s estate in the wilds of Teesdale.
Much of the restaurant’s fare is brought down from its own estate in the wilds of Teesdale
But there is also woodcock and wigeon, teal and ptarmigan – seasonal game birds that are rare visitors to restaurant tables and as daringly recherché as the culinary arcana you would find in the most ultra-authentic Japanese.
Personally, I find it impossible to pass up the opportunity to order two courses of food made from suet, an ingredient as exotic as ptarmigan these days.
The steak and kidney pudding comes in a case that looks as indomitable as the dome of hair in the restaurant’s mural of Mrs Thatcher done up as Britannia. But cut into it and the pastry is every bit as pliable as the Shanghai dumplings causing queues at Din Tai Fung around the corner.
Rare ingredients, like seasonal game birds, mean that Rules is as daringly recherché as the culinary arcana you would find in the most ultra-authentic Japanese
Follow that with syrup sponge, casting a glow as golden as the restaurant’s lighting before being drenched with custard poured from a silver boat, with all the ceremony of crêpe Suzette being ignited at The Ritz.
It doesn’t all have to be so hearty. Perfectly seared scallops, sticky with crusty pan juices, sit atop a salad of celeriac and apples, while dressed crab has snowy-white meat as sweet as lobster
Whether you’re 18 or 80, Rules is perfect for a lavish, celebratory meal
Whatever you order, there’s a sort of plain-speaking sincerity that feels as rousingly British as ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’ sung at the Cenotaph. You could come to Rules for a tartan-free Burns Night or do as Boris Johnson did last year and bunk off work here for a Valentine’s Day lunch.
When it comes to the rules of attraction, this is a restaurant that only gets better with age.