We all know Rules, don’t we? Languishing there in its handsome Maiden Lane premises since God fell off the bus, serving doughy, doughty Brit food and carafes of claret to its audience of duffers, grandees and wealthy tourists. Yadda yadda, let’s go to Mishkin’s or Opera Tavern or wherever the cool Covent Garden money is…
Well, not me, bro’. I’m in Rules, which faces dismissiveness from the beardie foodiegentsia with the kind of amused sigh that can only come from somewhere that’s been cramming them in, day and night, since 1798. For widgeon, snipe and ptarmigan, and for belted Galloway cattle, from their own estates. And for afternoons: I recently discovered that it doesn’t close between lunch and dinner, perfect for the cinq-à-sept liaison, naughty chums.
The restaurant is still independently owned and has soldiered on through power cuts, collapsing kitchen machinery and world wars. You could badger urbane GM Ricky McMenemy to dish about guests from Madonna to John Prescott, but he’s far, far too discreet. But then, in an establishment that has fed Dickens and Thackeray, and has been reviewed by Kingsley Amis (I love that his scathing critique is up on the website), you’re unlikely to be dazzled by any kind of parvenu. The sedate, formal staff occasionally allow themselves a teeny jape with US guests: when asked how old the restaurant is, they smile: “About 20 years younger than your country.”
Rules tends to be a bit cagey about new chefs, never doing anything so vulgar as courting publicity. But nuts to that: the new guy in the kitchen is so good, he deserves a bit of a song and dance. David Stafford (ex Galvin, Le Café Anglais and River Café) knows there’s no point battling against the forces of tradition, so his menu is liberally blessed with, yes, game (when in season), pies and puddings. But he’s added his own flourishes: turning pies into lavish pithiviers, or referencing Roman cooking in a glorious dish of outrageously gamey hare fillet served with a nutmeg-scented, single semolina gnocco.
There’s more hare in a hotpot, the ripely-hung, braised meat layered with discs of crisp, buttery potato. Partridge for two, exquisitely juicy and with a whiff of mulchy earth and hedgerow from its ageing, is majestic: served on a silver charger with fruity, relish-like red cabbage and that pithivier, a dome of crisp pastry stuffed with the bird’s innards and garlicky French sausage, it’s a complex, memorable little number that shoots straight to the top of my list of deathbed dishes.
The only misfire is seared squid with chilli: how… modern. It looks about as at home here as I do in KFC, which is maybe why it seems to have given up the ghost before even getting to the table. But everything else is comfort and joy – the memory of a syrup-drenched steamed pudding with custard torments me as I sit here with nothing in the fridge but hummus. And did I mention the truffled macaroni cheese?
To eat here is to allow yourself to sink into a velvet-upholstered, wood-panelled fantasy of a past we’ve never experienced: hell, Rules even owns a 1935 Rolls-Royce called Bubbles. A younger, more female demographic has discovered Rules, but we’re delighted to be seated beside a table of gents who look like escapees from a vintage Punch cartoon. I love the perfectly mixed martinis and the straight-faced camp of beer in silver tankards and a cocktail made with Pinky vodka called the Kate Middleton. I love the wine-decanting rituals. I love that nobody bats an eyelid when we plead for bread sauce that’s not on the menu. And I adore the retainer-like waiter who says, “I’ll trouble you with the wine list again shortly, madam.” By dint of its unique heritage, Rules could pile ’em in while serving any old toss, but it doesn’t. It evolves constantly, in such a way that you simply don’t notice. Now that’s historic.
• Rules 35 Maiden Lane, London WC2, 020-7836 5314. Open all week, from noon. Last orders 11.45pm (10.45 Sun). £40-50 a head for three courses, plus drinks and service.
Value for money 7/10