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Rules Restaurant, Covent Garden, Reviewed

Jonathan Schofield doesn't think much of the oldest restaurant in London

Written by . Published on November 22nd 2011.

Rules Restaurant, Covent Garden, Reviewed

THE word institution has two meanings.

It can be an affectionate term of doting familiarity, referring to a place or a person so established they have become a byword for what they do: Harrods is an institution, so is Terry Wogan.

Or the word can reverse polarity. It can refer to Broadmoor. Or Wormwood Scrubs. Or even your own office. Then it becomes associated with another word, ‘institutionalised’. It slides into bed with staleness, lack of imagination, even dull horror, and lies there doing nothing.

Rules is perfect for visitors to the city if they're weighed down with cash and want a Merchant Ivory view of our country. It's Downton Abbey with poor food cooked in an obsolete way: a sort of a snooty and exclusive theme park.

Rules Restaurant in Covent Garden is always called an institution, they should add the word to the name. It opened in 1798 and claims to be the capital’s oldest continuously run eaterie. It's an institution by sheer doggedness.

On first viewing the place looks like a lunatic asylum, which isn't maybe the type of institution visitors had in mind.

The decor is barking mad, the sheer weight of wall-hanging extraordinary. It’s as though a very uncertain buyer had dropped into an antique art dealer in the Shires and noting the bewildering number of prints of worthy Brits had panicked and screamed, “I can’t choose... I’ll take them all! All of them I tell you! And the antlers as well!”

But then after about seven minutes the bedlam becomes beguiling. Cosiness sets in. Rules is transformed and becomes cluttered and comfy, like a grandparent’s sitting room.


The menu adds to that.

It’s full of words such as game and cock and pigeon and saddle and fist and snatch – I think I’ve got that right. It’s as whoop-whoop cod-British as a thigh-slap on breeches in a Gilray cartoon about wenching.

Sadly the food on arrival isn’t quite as forthright as the menu suggests. Despite all the hearty dish descriptions there’s a lack of any sort of definition or edge. This was especially the case in an area where Rules thinks it rules, the game.

My game broth (£8.50) came in a nice tidsy cauldron complete with lid, but it was weak, lacking in flavour, dominated by a thin liquid, with tastless blobs floating inside and some kale thrown in for good measure but little effect. It was all a bit Baxters. I want my broth thicker, more filling.

Rules And Squares 005

For the main I was left staring at an unbecoming bowl of pan-fried pheasant, pearl barley and forest mushrooms. It was even more bland than the starter, just dull meat with a slop underneath of smudgy and vaguely earthy flavours. If you’ve ever taken a swig out of a Lake District stream and got a blast of peat with the water you’ll know what I mean.

It also cost £22.95. Ridiculous.

Pallid Pheasant

As I attempted to find any sort of flavour a sharp voice broke my concentration.

Over my left shoulder I was being eyeballed by a man, bald as a coot with a face like a ferret.

“Does sir not like the dish,” he said sniffily.

The 'sir' was pronounced to rhyme very exactly with the word 'twat'.

“Not really, the pheasant is flavourless and the whole thing is too... watery... flat,” I said, adopting the tones of a man who’s been cross-fertilising with European aristocracy and shooting loads of semi-flying country beasts for years.

“Watery?” said ferret-faced moon head with an, I-really-don’t-think-you-know-what-you’re-talking-about-look, “Watery? Watery? That’s rather the way it comes, sir (twat). Would, sir (twat), maybe like to change his mind and order something else?”

I’ve never seen a better sneer.

I collected my thoughts for a second, and said: “Yes please, I’d like the jugged hare.” 

The look on Mr Moon-Bonce Ferret-Head’s face - wow. You could go a distance and not see that. He hadn’t expected me to take him up on his generous offer.

“Right then, I’ll change it for sir (complete twat),” he said.

And he did.

And now I sort of love him. Because the hare was ok, not brilliant, but the flesh had a robust, lusty wildness to it, brought out by the accompanying veg and a parsnip puree that was almost delicate for Rules.

It was still all very loose as though I’d just come off a football pitch aged nine and needed a hot warming dish. And it was another crazy price of £26.95. 

Rules And Squares 014 

As for the other dishes, the single Colchester oyster I had was fine. For my companion, the beetroot goats cheese starter (£9.25 for f's sake), was good on the goats cheese but too heavy on the slabs of beetroot. But the fish main was declared the best she’s eaten in years by the crazy Colonial woman who’d come along with me.

She said it was: “The finest piece of halibut I've had in a long time. And very nice with the artichoke puree.”

Rules And Squares 007

Cheeses (£11.95) were fine despite a biscuit dispenser that resembled a compartment for a small cannon. I suppose for some that container is part of the appeal of Rules. Still the Cornish Blue was frankly one of the finest things I’ve tasted all year, a sweaty, brassy cheese with nothing consommé or watery about it.

Rules And Squares 017

We had a bottle of 2009 Burgundy for £42 and then several glasses of a 2008 Ribero del Duero from a bottle of £34.75. The latter was fuller and more satisfying than the former. We didn’t feel like splashing out on a top end Domaine Rene Rostaing Cote Rotie Cuvee Cote Blonde at £185.

The bill as it stood was more than £190 for two.

Without sides.

Although for that, of course, we did get some free condescension from the moon headed ferret-faced restaurant manager. (For the record, the other waiter we had was a charmer, French maybe, with nothing ferret-faced about him.)

Rules is perfect for visitors to the city if they're weighed down with cash and want a Merchant Ivory view of our country. It's Downton Abbey with poor food cooked in an obsolete way: a sort of a snooty and exclusive theme park. It's an institutionalised institution.

This brings in a crowd that loves all the Hollywood Englishness of it: in otherwords people from Germany, Scandinavia, the States and North Country oiks, like me. Or rather it did. I won’t be back.

On the way out the moon headed ferret-faced restaurant manager caught my eye, “Goodbye sir (twat),” he said. 

You can follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter here @JonathSchofield

ALL SCORED CONFIDENTIAL REVIEWS ARE IMPARTIAL. £1000 to the reader who can prove otherwise, and dismissal for the staff member who wrote a review scored out of twenty on a freebie from the restaurant.

Rules Restaurant
35 Maiden Lane
Covent Garden
London, WC2E 7LB

Rating: 12/20
Food: 5/10
Service: 3/5 (for the waiter not the manager) 
Ambience: 4/5

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: we gets carried away.

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Jill MartinDecember 10th 2012.

Well done on the Manager's part for being so observant on so many levels!!

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