RULES claims to be London’s oldest surviving restaurant – open for business near Covent Garden since 1798.
As Marina O’Laughlin states in the Guardian, “We all know Rules, don’t we?”
Yes, we do. They have fed Charles Dickens…”Bertie”, King Edward VII of England…two James Bonds, Pierce Brosnan and Roger Moore…as well as Paul Newman and Harrison Ford. They’ve soldiered through two world wars and countless domestic conflicts, all the while serving up classic English fare with a huge emphasis on wild-caught game.
On a previous visit, I asked how old the restaurant was. Our server instantly said, “About 20 years younger than your country.”
Rules actually has a kind of fixation on America, as they routinely claim that the reason they’re routinely dismissed by London’s “elite foodie intelligentsia” owes to the fact that they’re always jam-packed with American tourists.
So it’s with this understanding that Joanne and I periodically return to Rules – most recently just a few weeks ago.
Here’s my dilemma: I really love the food, but they piss me off!
Upon arrival, we were greeted at the podium by a pompous, condescending manager who treated us like we were trying to sneak past his velvet rope – even though we had a reservation.
First, he told us that they had no booth for us, as we had requested, and wouldn’t have one for an hour-and-a-half. He said this as I looked over his shoulder at a half-empty dining room.
Ultimately they did find us a corner table (#15) that was just fine, and as we were led there, the host told us that we had to be out in two hours as our table was booked again at 8:00 o’clock.
Our server was pleasant enough as she explained that they were out of prawns….out of hare….and out of pheasant. Again, this was at 6:00 PM. Somebody screwed up on the daily ordering.
I wasn’t particularly annoyed, as we had our eye on other offerings. (By the way: Parasole restaurants occasionally run out of evening specials. We’ll prep 15 of something, and typically they’re gone by 8:30, not 6 PM! Rarely, however, do we run out of a menu item). Clearly, Rules was not at the top of its game.
Having been warned that we’d better vacate by 8 PM, and denied the option of ordering a good chunk of the menu, I began to think that they weren’t going to be happy until we weren’t happy.
My suspicions proved correct. When our server took our appetizer order, she reminded us – for the third time – that we had to be out of the restaurant by 8 o’clock!
Now I was “RED-ASSED.” And I said to Joanne, “They don’t give a shit about us and our evening. They just want to churn tables.”
I summoned the manager and said, “You know, I could have chosen from any number of good London restaurants tonight – The Guinea Grill, the Ivy, St. John, Hawksmoor…but you know what? I CHOSE YOU! And here’s what your attitude is communicating to us: Get ‘em in, seat ‘em anyplace, and get ‘em out. We need this table, NOW!” And yet I CHOSE YOU? … WHY?”
Sometimes it’s hard to be a foodie: I wanted to protect my dignity. I wanted to give them the finger and storm off, but…
THE FOOD IS REALLY GOOD!
So what was I to do? Was the eating experience worth putting up with the abuse? Well, I keep going back, so I guess I have my answer. Apparently I’m not just a slave to food, but a glutton for punishment (“It tastes so good AND hurts so good!”).
Okay, let’s go ……
Jay Rayner of The Guardian writes, “Rules is a theme park iteration of old London.” Here you sink into a “plushy” crimson velvet booth amid swirly red-patterned carpets. The tablecloths are starched white linen. You marvel at the wood-paneled walls, cluttered with hundreds of oil paintings, old portraits, humorous prints and antlers, antlers, antlers everywhere, reinforcing their game story. The interior is utterly overwrought, but I have to say it….”Rules is COZY.”
Joanne and I always go in the fall – me for the WILD GAME; for Joanne, anything but.
Rabbit and hare are served up in different ways – the rabbit is braised and accompanied by butter-loaded gratin dauphinois. The hare is a little more adventuresome – accompanied by earthy pheasant sausage stuffed with the innards of the bird (watch out Fergus Henderson; they’re meddling on your turf).
Rules is well known for their Pot Pies, particularly Steak & Kidney Pie, which I’ve tried and loved, with its thick, rich gravy and suet crust. I’ve yet to try the Wild Boar Pot Pie, but how could it not be excellent?
Shepherd’s Pie is a signature dish, and in a nice twist it comes with lamb, not beef, and a topping of butter-loaded mashed potatoes toasted under the broiler.
Seared Scallops and Pork Cheeks are an unusual pairing, but good (I always say, the best way to prepare seafood is by adding meat to it).
In addition to Guinness Beef Stew, which sounds great, they feature a Rib of Beef for Two, again with dauphinois potatoes, savoy cabbage, winter vegetables, greens and Yorkshire pudding. It’s a big, impressive statement and will run you about $42 per person. Check out the photo.
On our recent visit, we had appetizers of Rabbit Rilettes with pickled onions (I loved it; Joanne hated it). Since it was hunting season, I tried the Venison Carpaccio with pickled red cabbage, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and watercress. The red cabbage was a perfect counterpoint to the gaminess of the venison. Although I was tempted (Joanne, less so), the Beef, Kidney and Oyster Pudding sounded like an adventure. Next time.
For mains, Joanne had the Seared Scottish Salmon with Mussels (but, alas, no prawns).
During our previous visits, I’ve had several versions of partridge. This time I had Red Leg Partridge with creamed savoy cabbage and bacon. The meat was flavorful and tender – and tiny flecks of buckshot provided additional texture.
Amongst the other feathered and furred offerings was Young Grouse with red currant jelly, crispy bacon, gaufrette potatoes and bread sauce. I didn’t go for it. Grouse can be very strong, and the last time I had it in London was at St. John (where our waiter described it as having a “rather metallic taste”). Nicely plated and presented, but too gamey even for me.
We ended our meal with an order of syrupy Sticky Toffee Pudding with walnuts and crème fraiche, as well as a Flintstonian wedge of English Stilton Cheese from the trolley, cut and served with ceremony. Neither offering is to be missed.
So here’s my bottom line: If it’s fall and you’re up for a generous taste of game or comfort food, Rules occupies a rare position among restaurants: It doubles as a tourist magnet as well as a superb restaurant. But DO NOT GO in a bad or combative mood, because if you’re on the cusp of getting pissed, I guarantee they will MAKE you pissed.
Even KATE MIDDLETON, who has a “pinky vodka” drink named after her, goes to RULES. I’m certain that she is awarded one of the coveted velvet booths.
And she owns a gun!